TAYLORSVILLE, Calif. — Indian Valley’s small-town summers used to be nothing like mega fires. The warmest weeks of the year were for checking livestock, looking for newborn calves, herding the mamas and babies across the fields on horseback. They were meant for swimming in the creeks of the Feather River among the cottonwood trees. They were meant to count down the days until the July 4 rodeo and the Plumas County Fair.
But this summer, the rodeo campgrounds have been covered with the tents of National Guard troops and the funfairs have become the base camp for hundreds of firefighters.
For those residents who stayed for six weeks when the Dixie Fire engulfed the montane forests of Northern California, hoping to protect their homes, herds, and way of life, it’s hard to avoid a sense of despair.
“They just want us to burn,” Butch Forcino said, repeating a chorus heard by the valley’s weary residents, who have seen firefighters appear and disappear. He lost his home in Indian Falls to the fire and, like many of the displaced, has lived in a trailer in a friend’s field.
Many of the people who still hold onto I have known since childhood. This valley has been my family’s home since about 1950, when my grandparents settled near the small enclave of Genesee, a former stagecoach stop about five miles from Taylorsville. My grandfather built a racehorse ranch that doubled as a summer camp for Hollywood kids. My mother moved, but came back with me after her divorce when I was 4 years old.
My aunt, uncle and cousins are now among the ten or so farmers who call the valley home. Most have stayed despite evacuation orders, tending their hundreds of cattle, even while the largest wildfires in the United States are extinguished.
Some officials have tried to encourage them to leave, saying they were endangering themselves and the firefighters. But at a time when about 100 major fires are burning in the West and federal and state resources are straining, they fear that if they don’t protect their homes, no one will.
“It’s so disheartening when you look at that huge, monstrous fire,” my aunt, Heather Kingdon, 70, told me when I visited Indian Valley last week to report on the fire. “But people don’t understand. This is our livelihood.”
The Dixie fire devastated the valley’s largest town, Greenville — whose main street dated back to the California gold rush — on Aug. 4 after flames jumped a containment line and flew down the mountainside. Homes in other, smaller communities collapsed in the weeks that followed.
Taylorsville is now the largest city still standing here, about 150 miles north of Sacramento, the state capital. The city’s few hundred residents have sunk to several dozen as the fire has reduced nearby forests to blackened trunks, authorities have issued mandatory evacuation orders and set up checkpoints on the roads.
On the covered porch of the city’s only store last week, the few remaining residents stopped to look at a map showing the fire’s progress, while emergency alerts blared from their phones, signaling final evacuation orders.
During my childhood here, wildfires flared up from time to time, but they were nothing like the massive Dixie fire, now the second largest on record in California. The summer sky was reliably clear then, and we could lay on cribs under the ponderosa pines and watch the night sky—now as empty as the light-polluted plain above New York City—full of stars.
My grandfather’s summer camp, the Walking G Ranch, closed years ago, but the lilac bushes I remember smelling after evening chores are still there, though dried out. So are the mossy ponds that fill the air with the scent of watercress and mint.
My aunt and uncle’s house is on a nearby wooded hill. It had already been a bad year, my aunt told me last week. There was the drought, which prevented them from harvesting their own hay and had to buy bales to feed the cattle all winter. Then there was a plague of locusts, which swarmed so densely that they covered the cows.
Like so many in the valley, my relatives packed their most important belongings in horse trailers and then parked the trailers in the middle of irrigated fields — wherever they plan to go, they said, as a last resort.
To protect their homes, residents of Indian Valley cleared undergrowth and cut down beloved trees when a fire breaks out. They have reused irrigation equipment to curb the flames and rigged pumps to draw water from ponds. They have seen fire trucks arrive and depart, go in and out of the valley as the fire progresses or retreats.
Even before the recent threat, the valley had seen a sharp decline in population in recent decades, when the mines and sawmills closed. Many of those who remain are older, some come from families that go back generations.
Monroe White, a veteran and once prospector and lumberjack, is 85. He would leave alone, he said as he sat on the porch of the Taylorsville store, “if I can read by the fire and see it come over that hill. “
Last week flames shot over the ridges at Genesee and my family’s old farm. Police officers patrolled all night, wailing sirens and commanding, “Please evacuate the area!” My aunt texted her son and asked—when she was done packing—if he would hang a framed print in his nursery.
People in Taylorsville walked back and forth to the fire station, eager for updates. The next day, the familiar yellow fire engines began to reappear, charging into the massive conflagration from another front. Then came the bulldozers and helicopters.
As the crew spread across the forest and dug trenches, the fire reached the Walking G. My family rushed the animals—the horses and sheep, the chickens and dogs—to stables and pens in the barn they shared with a volunteer firefighter.
As ash rained from the sky, they shot embers down with fire hoses. Then came the engines, dozens of firefighters from all over the state.
Finally the fire continued, racing over a knoll into the valley, where it jumped over a creek and started burning in another forest. But the flames have returned in the days since. My relatives stay as planned and beat them back as water-dumping helicopters pound through the once-calm sky.
The Dixie fire continues to burn in the ledges around.