Half a mile south of what’s left of the old Gold Rush–era town of Greenville, Calif., Highway 89 climbs steeply in a series of S-turns as familiar to me as my own backyard. From the top of that grade, I’ve sometimes seen bald eagles soaring over the valley that stretches to the base of Keddie Peak, the northernmost mountain in California’s Sierra Nevada range.
Today, stuck at the bottom thanks to endless road work, I try to remember what these hillsides looked like before the Dixie fire torched them in a furious 104-day climate-change-charged rampage across nearly 1 million acres, an area larger than the state of Delaware. They were so green then, pines, cedars, and graceful Douglas firs mixed with oaks pushing through the thick conifer foliage in a quest for light and life. Today, I see only slopes studded with charred stumps and burnt trees strewn across the land like so many giant pick-up sticks.
Dixie did far more than take out entire forests. It razed Greenville, my hometown since 1975. It reduced house after house to rubble, leaving only chimneys where children once had hung Christmas stockings, and dead century-old oaks where families, spanning four generations, had not so long ago built tree forts. The fire left our downtown with scorched, bent-over lampposts touching debris-strewn sidewalks. The historic sheriff’s office is just a series of naked half-round windows eerily showcasing devastation. Like natural disasters everywhere, this fire has upended entire communities.
Sadly, I have plenty of time to contemplate these devastating changes. I’m the first in a long line of vehicles halted by a burly man clad in neon yellow and wielding a stop sign on a six-foot pole. We motorists are all headed toward Quincy, the seat of Plumas County and its largest town. My mission is to retrieve the household mail, a task that would ordinarily have required a five-minute walk from my second-floor office to the Greenville Post Office. Now, it’s a 50-mile round trip drive that sometimes takes four hours because of the constant removal of hazardous trees. I’m idling here impatiently.
Greenville still has a zip code, but the fire gutted the concrete-block building that was our post office. The box where I once received magazines, bills, and hand-decorated cards from my grandkids lies on its back, collecting ashes. Whoever promised that “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” would impede postal deliveries never anticipated the ferocity of the Dixie fire.
Few did. That blaze erupted in forests primed for a runaway inferno by a climate that’s changing before our eyes. Temperatures worldwide are up 2.04 degrees Fahrenheit since 1901 and 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit in the United States since 1970. This year is California’s driest in a century. Only 11.87 inches of rain or snow fell, less than half of what experts deem average. Combine that with a century of forest management that suppressed natural fires and promoted the logging of large, more fire-resistant trees and these forests needed only a spark to erupt into a barrage of flames that swept from the Feather River Canyon to north of Lassen Volcanic National Park, the equivalent of traveling from Philadelphia to New York City.