Another Town Is Leveled by Flames
The words were a stark reminder of just how brutal the California wildfires have become in recent years.
“We lost Greenville tonight.”
Rep. Doug LaMalfa lamented that the small town in Plumas County he represents in Congress was the victim of the Dixie fire, now the sixth largest fire in California history. Historic buildings have burned down, dozens of homes have been destroyed and parts of Greenville have remained unrecognizable, my colleagues report.
The expansive growth of fire has unfortunately become commonplace. Of the 10 largest wildfires on record in California, six have occurred in the past 12 months.
“They spread so fast and so hot. Sometimes we feel like we’re on our heels trying to catch up, ”Chris Aragon, captain of Cal Fire, the state fire police told me. “It’s not the same behavior as the fires we were used to a decade or more ago.”
Longer fire seasons and more destructive fires have changed the lives not only of families concerned for their safety, but also of people like Aragon who are tasked with controlling the fires.
As most of us flee the flames, Cal Fire’s nearly 7,500 firefighters run towards them, sometimes inhaling smoky air, collapsing from dehydration and working 96 hours straight.
How fires have changed
When Aragon, 36, worked as a seasonal firefighter more than a decade ago, most fires started between July and September, he said. The season was long if she made it through Halloween.
But the campfire, which destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018, started in November. And the year before, Aragon traveled to Ventura County to work on the Thomas Fire, which broke out in December.
“We were all wondering if we were going to come home for Christmas,” he said.
Aragon was recently assigned to the Dixie Fire, one of about a dozen currently burning in California. The river fire, which erupted about 40 miles northeast of Sacramento on Wednesday, has gone unchecked and has already burned 2,400 acres, forcing thousands of evacuations.
Mike Conaty, a Cal Fire captain with the Butte Unit, said the fires his mentors told him about – the once-in-a-lifetime wildfires – are now happening on a regular basis.
“In the last five years of my career we’ve just blown fires like this out of the water,” Conaty told me.
There is too much dry and dense vegetation. And the wind in recent fires has blown up to 100 miles an hour, “so you couldn’t drive as fast as the fire was spreading,” Aragon said.
“It looks like a freight train is passing and you can’t hear anything,” he said, adding that the flames can get so high that they block out the sun.
“In the middle of the day it looks like it’s dark.
Cough and collapse
The work required to stop the trajectory of a fire can be exhausting. Firefighters alternate 24-hour shifts, typically sleeping in hotel rooms near the fire instead of returning home.
Conaty collapsed from dehydration after working out. Aragon said he went 24 hours without eating, consumed with cleaning brushes and water sprays.
The men got used to the discomfort. The flames are often a few feet away, or even a few centimeters, and can be unbearably hot. The smell of smoke lingers on their skin for days.
Firefighters wear helmets but not fitted masks, which would hamper their breathing and slow them down, Aragon said. Instead, they inhale smoke.
“In my first season, I spat black stuff for about a week,” he said.
“A constraint for the family”
Conaty returned home last week after an 11-day stint on the Dixie fire.
He said that although his 9-year-old son was delighted to see him, his 11-year-old gave him an attitude, the coping mechanism he developed to cope with his father being absent.
“You kind of burn the candle at both ends most of the time,” Conaty said. “You can be as prepared as you want and as used to it as you think, and that’s always a strain on the family.”
Last year, in another wildfire, Conaty was away from his wife and children for 23 straight days, only being able to see them via FaceTime. As fires become more destructive and the fire season extends into the year, firefighters’ schedules become less predictable.
On July 25 of this year, Conaty turned 46. He couldn’t see his family as he was working on a fire, for the second year in a row.
The rest of the news
What we recommend
I’m reading Aubrey Gordon’s new book, “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat,” a smart dive into our culture’s noxious obsession with thinness.
I picked up Gordon’s book after listening to “Maintenance Phase,” a podcast she co-hosts that demystifies food culture. Particularly fascinating was this week’s episode on Body Mass Index.
Where we travel
Today’s California travel tip comes from Ryan Mesheau, a reader who lives in Sonoma. Ryan writes:
Whenever we take visitors to San Francisco, I always poke their heads into the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, hidden in Ross Alley between Jackson Street and Washington Street in Chinatown. You can just take a look and see some women making cookies by hand. Someone is handing out samples of cookies that are still warm, crispy, and perfectly sweet.
Tell us about the best places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected] clock.com. We will share more in future editions of the newsletter.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back on Monday. – Soumya
PS here the mini-crosswords of the day, and a clue: Game often played while holding a beer (5 letters).
#Town #Leveled #Flames