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Op-Ed: The towns being erased by the Dixie fire need far more help

Deer search for food in charred remains of Greenville, Calif., after the Dixie fire
Deer search for food in the charred remains of Greenville after most of the town and surrounding forest were destroyed by the Dixie fire.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The life, property and livelihoods of thousands who live in little-known rural communities of Northern California are being threatened and destroyed by the Dixie fire. It has morphed into the second-largest fire in the state’s history, and we who live in this purgatory need far more help.

Unlike the jarring 2018 Camp fire that leveled the nearby city of Paradise in a matter of hours, the Dixie fire began in mid-July and has been swallowing our communities and businesses for weeks.

This fire must be suppressed now, and we need the help of Gov. Gavin Newsom to expedite an emergency or major disaster declaration from the president. State and federal firefighters do not have enough personnel to extinguish the flames, let alone the resources necessary to save our communities.

Igniting after another suspected incident involving power lines from Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s largest combined gas and electric utility, the Dixie fire has mainly torched Plumas County. Burning through 517,945 acres as of Friday, it has reached the neighboring counties of Butte, Lassen and Tehama and is now California’s largest to originate from a single ignition.

The Dixie fire is mainly on land that falls under federal jurisdiction, and over 6,000 state and federal firefighters are on the scene. It has been officially declared a disaster by the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom, and it has received aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help fight the fire. But here on the ground, as we listen to firefighting scanners, we too often hear, “We are spread thin over here,” when requests are made for more support in one area or another. We know better than to blame the exhausted men and women who are here desperately trying to save our homes and livelihoods with limited resources.

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Further emergency funding should include more state and federal disaster relief aid to residents who are displaced. The fire has affected 7,000 to 31,000 people – a figure that will only grow. With only 31% containment as of Friday, no expected date for full control, and the prolonged displacement of over 40% of Plumas County’s residents, many are struggling to find food, water and shelter.

We gather hopelessly around phones with any remaining battery to watch the news media focus on climate catastrophe, instead of how local emergency responders are understaffed and need relief from grueling shifts in the face of lost homes and evacuations.

We are in a living nightmare, and at this point we are wondering if those sitting in Sacramento and Washington deem our communities worthy of saving. Over a month into this fiasco, we have assumed the answer is a resounding no.

Are we important enough?

The U.S. Forest Service has recently committed to adopting a new policy direction that will immediately attack and suppress emerging fires. What is not clear to those of us who are witnessing the destruction of our communities is whether our towns and livelihoods will be a priority to the federal government.

The Dixie fire has already leveled three communities, including Canyon Dam, Indian Falls and my hometown of Greenville. It has partially destroyed four, singed the hair off of five, and idled within throwing distance of seven. To our dismay, it seems headed for an additional five. This is on top of the amount of damage done to our tribal lands, roads, railways, gas infrastructure, telecommunications, power grid, outdoor recreation, agriculture and businesses, including two main lumber mills.

With low containment and the prolonged displacement of over 40% of Plumas County’s residents, revenue streams have disappeared, savings accounts are running dry, and cars have become homes. We are exhausted.

We are past the point of discussion. The current response is not nearly enough, and our state and federal governments must do more to suppress this fire and help those who are displaced.

With persistent drought throughout the West, we know how quickly a seemingly harmless and managed fire can explode into a dangerous and devastating one. The current state of our forests is setting up communities like ours for disaster, and suppressing destructive fires like Dixie is necessary if we are to have any forests left to manage. We residents have been and are eager to prioritize the measured health of the mostly federally owned forests where we have lived for generations, but we cannot do so if our communities do not exist.

Veronica Garcia is from Greenville. Displaced by the Dixie fire, she is currently staying in Quincy, which is also in Plumas County.


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