San Francisco, California – Travis Mitchell has lived in Greenville, California, since he was five.
The 34-year-old returned to his home a week ago to find it still standing, although it smelled like smoke, the food in his fridge had rotted, and one of his goats had been eaten by wolves.
A month earlier, Mitchell had evacuated just before flames engulfed the small former mining community he has called home for most of his life.
“The town’s pretty much gone,” Mitchell said of Greenville, which had about 1,000 residents before the Dixie Fire burned it to the ground. “Down the road from me, all my neighbours are gone.”
He said he “got lucky” that the wind changed and his home was spared. A few buildings, including two stores and part of the high school survived, but officials said about three-quarters of the structures in Greenville burned down.
The Dixie Fire, which is now 75 percent contained, has destroyed 1,300 structures and charred more than 400,000 hectares (one million acres) across northern California, making it the second-largest wildfire in state history.
“It looks like a big graveyard,” Mitchell said. “There’s nothing to look at other than chimneys and metal.”
Extended wildfire season
Decades of poor management has allowed forests on the US west coast to grow dense. Climate change is increasing the likelihood of droughts that dry out that fuel, and the region is currently experiencing a 20-year-long “megadrought”.
Together, these conditions have made it more likely that catastrophic “megafires” will erupt in California.
Fifteen active wildfires have forced more than 4,000 people to evacuate across the state, which has seen more than 900,000 hectares (2.25 million acres) burn so far this year – a total that was almost unimaginable decades ago. But fire season is far from over, with experts saying it could extend longer than usual into December this year.
US President Joe Biden touched down in California this week amid the wildfires, pledging a series of measures to combat the problem and linking the record blazes to climate change. “We can’t ignore the reality that these wildfires are being supercharged by climate change,” Biden said during a news conference in Sacramento on Monday.
Biden said he surveyed damage from the Caldor Fire in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which has burned more than 80,000 hectares (200,000 acres) and 1,000 structures to date, and was 68 percent contained as of Tuesday.
“Homes, precious memories destroyed, air quality degraded, local economy stopped in its tracks, and nearly 200 people in the area forced to live in shelters,” he said about the toll the wildfire has taken.
‘Ashes and twisted metal’
Back in Greenville, where a mandatory evacuation order was lifted on September 3, residents who have returned are taking stock of what they lost. “It’s ashes and twisted metal,” said Ken Donnell, owner of Donnell’s Music Land on Main street, about the community.
Donnell builds and repairs string instruments, inheriting the tools from his grandfather. He lost his business and home to the fire. With decent insurance, he had a softer landing than other residents and found an apartment nearby, but he said many people were underinsured or had no insurance and were living in tents.
The question of whether to rebuild hangs in the air. “We were barely hanging on by our fingernails before,” Donnell told Al Jazeera in a phone interview. “At 68, do I have the oomph to do that?”
For his part, Mitchell said he was debating whether to move out of Greenville altogether. But he has three years left to pay off his home and that is one reason to stay, for now.
A two-hour drive from Greenville is the town of Paradise that was destroyed by the 2018 Camp Fire. Paradise was a larger, wealthier town than Greenville, but three years later, Paradise still has not recovered, Mitchell said.
“They say they’re going to rebuild,” he said of Greenville. “They’ll get a gas station up and a few homeowners will rebuild, but I don’t know. There’s just not much money here.”
On Monday, Biden said he would work closely with California Governor Gavin Newsom to ensure the state has “every resource” it needs. He has approved disaster declarations for the Caldor and Dixie fires, allowing federal funds to flow to California.
Biden also said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved 33 fire assistance grants to help western states pay for the cost of fighting fires, while adding that he is working to address a fire hose shortage caused by supply chain issues during the coronavirus pandemic.
“These fires are blinking code red for our nation, gaining frequency and ferocity, and we know what we need to do,” Biden said. “It starts with our firefighters, putting their lives on the line in rugged and dangerous conditions.”
In June, Biden increased wages for federal firefighters from $13 to $15 an hour. In addition, Canada and Australia have sent firefighters and aircraft to help, and 250 US troops are on the ground fighting the Dixie Fire alongside firefighters, Biden said.
The American president’s plan includes using technology to detect fires more quickly in the future, and his infrastructure bill, which has not yet passed, includes funding for wildfire preparedness. Biden’s budget also increased funding for hazardous fuel treatment – the mechanical clearing and prescribed burning of overgrown forests.
Lenya Quinn-Davidson, fire adviser at the University of California Cooperative Extension and director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, is optimistic that people can bring wildfires back into balance with nature.
Quinn-Davidson trains people to use prescribed burns, also known as “good fire”, to prevent destructive wildfires. Historically, Indigenous people intentionally set small fires to clear dense forests, but the US made this practice illegal. Recently, Native American tribes and Quinn-Davidson are bringing the concept back – but she said the practice needs to scale up massively.
“In the Sierra Nevada, we’re doing less than 20 percent of what needs to happen every year,” she said. “What we’re doing is a drop in the bucket. We need to be thinking so much bigger about how to restore these landscapes and build resiliency.”
So excited that the legislature approved $20 million for a state-backed Prescribed Fire Claims Fund! Between this and SB332, we might see some much-needed change around prescribed fire in CA! @Conserve_CA @SenBillDodd @calcattlemen @CAgovernor
— Lenya Quinn-Davidson (@lenyaqd) September 10, 2021
One considerable challenge has been insurance, she explained, as even people with extensive training can’t obtain insurance for prescribed burns. When a fire gets out of control and they call emergency services, they are billed tens of thousands of dollars.
But that insurance regime is about to change. This month the state legislature approved $20m to cover the costs of emergency response for prescribed burns, and Newsom is expected to sign Senate Bill 332 into law, which recognises the role of tribes in managing forests and changes the liability standard so that prescribed burners are not taking on as much risk.
Asked about the federal government’s approach to wildfires, Quinn-Davidson said it is important for the administration to recognise that both forest management and climate change play a role. “For someone like Biden, absolutely he needs to be working on the climate piece, because that’s the scale that he can affect.”