It’s raining here. One drop after precious drop, a downpour, a mist and then nothing. I smell it rise from the earth, a sigh, a need. The sound momentarilty comforting. I wonder if it’s enough to soothe the fire rushing through my community, to soothe the shattered edges of our collective psyche.
I’m in Truckee, 90-plus miles from my home in Meadow Valley where fire evacuation orders stand. The Dixie Fire started three weeks ago as a slow spit, a spark stuck down in the Feather River Canyon, across the river, the highway, a whole mountain from me. Officials had closed state Highway 70 and then reopened it. A good sign, I thought. Pieces of the canyon had burned before, nothing left but rock and ashes, I thought.
I forget sometimes the orientation of Plumas County, so big it could be its own state, filled mostly with federal forest land where the Sierra Nevada Mountains meet the Cascades. People live scattered across it in pockets. The Dixie Fire seemed small, unnoteworthy compared to the Beckworth Complex which had churned through sage brush, old burn scars and the boundaries of Frenchman Lake in our county’s east edges.
I watched the fire peripherally from Sacramento where I had been when it started. By the time I left, the fire had crossed the river, the highway and begun its climb up the ridges that would put it within striking distance of my community. I drove the Orville Quincy Highway, a road that swirled its way up a ridge into the Buck’s Lake Wilderness before dropping back down into Meadow Valley. I passed Berry Creek, a town descimated by the North Complex Fire in September 2020. Pieces of metal, surviving fragments of former houses, lay collapsed beyond fences and burned signs that once read welcome or no trespassing.
When I’d watched this fire’s smoke from Buck’s Summit the year before, it had been mixed with the souls of people caught in a wall of flames outside their houses, beside their packed trucks not expecting the dramatic wind shift that took the blaze away from my community and into theirs. And as I watched the columns build, took pictures of the beautiful red cast against clouds, stark white to purple to black, I did not know 15 people would die that night. I did not think we would be here again this year.
“Lisa, do you know what’s happening?” my neighbor, a 40-year resident and local fire fighter, asked as I threw camping and river gear beside my car, pulled the cat cage from the garage and dropped a crate filled with writing on the driveway.
“Mandadory evacuation,” I said. His shoulders disappeared down the gravel road.
I will spend the next few hours pulling things from my house, before falling into the curve of my oak swing slung to the rafter above my back deck. My voice, sobs mixed with cat calls, will echo in the winds as I watch the gangly pine trees sway the length of their eighty foot trunks to the still-blue sky. After I leave, I will switch from one social media site to another checking to see what people are saying — the sheriff’s office, Plumas National Forest, private Facebook pages — and listen to tin-can rumor mills spreading between friends.
“It will burn through,” they say. I cry, a low keening sound, like the injured howl of a coyote.
I track the fire’s progress through shifting memories of the places where I’d grown into myself, learning to trust my balance as I felt for prickly holds in the granite sided Grizzly Dome; the hiss of water against my guide paddle on Indian Creek discovering how to read the river; the clicking sound of aspen leaves holding conversations with the wind on the edge of Buck’s Lake or the cool texture of the dogwood blossoms sketching the edges of the Cascade’s trail where my feet tramped upon its settled path. There are more, the places where my soul feels settled, that the fire maps seem to be telling me are destroyed. The videos and pictures that arise like smoke on social media tell me most of what I need to know.
I hear the complaints in Susanville about the loss of eletricity and the stifling heat that traps them. I hear the news, NPR out of Sacramento talking about the smoke that fills its valley, the hazardous air quality. I wonder if they understand that this smoke is rising off the bones of our mountain, our commuities stealing the air from its lungs.
Lisa Tobe, a public health strategist, has been working on social justice issues since her term as a VISTA volunteer in Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains. A writer, mom and consultant, Lisa runs Mountain Passages, a non-profit focused on creating resilient communities; Wildflower Consulting, a firm that addresses increases community and organization capacity to foster systems change and is working on a memoir called Shadows of Me.