Shari Wilson woke up and stared at the sun, dull and orange against a ruddy sky. She checked the Air Quality Index app on her phone and put on a mask.
“I felt just kind of down,” she said. “You know, there’s that orange sky, gray day.”
Like millions of people across the Midwest and Northeast this past June, she saw smoke from Canadian wildfires. Though the fires were thousands of miles away, she couldn’t shake an uneasy feeling.
“I felt trapped in the smoke,” she said. “And it made me think a lot about my friends in California.”
Shari Wilson and her husband had moved back to their home state of Michigan less than a year prior. Before that, they had spent nearly four decades in California, more than half of it in Nevada City, a small town on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains, about an hour’s drive from Lake Tahoe.
The quintessential Gold Rush-era town, complete with a vibrant arts scene and quaint, historic downtown, is surrounded by pine forests. Shari Wilson’s husband, Mark Wilson, said when they first moved there, those trees were a big part of the draw.
“We had a great evergreen tree that grew two feet away from our deck,” he said. “We thought, ‘This is so great, we can watch the birds.’”
For more than two decades, the idea that a wildfire could level their house seemed distant. The 2017 Tubbs Fire in California’s wine country brought it home.
The fire tore through a suburban neighborhood, killing 22 people. A year later, the Camp Fire decimated the town of Paradise and killed 85 people.
“That made it real,” Mark Wilson said. “And it became a real feeling that this could easily happen to us tomorrow.”
The couple started thinking about where else to live. Shari Wilson was quick to say it wasn’t just due to the fires. “We aren’t climate refugees,” she said. They both grew up in Michigan and wanted to live close to family.
But when this summer’s smoke began to blot out the sun, Mark Wilson said it was a grim reminder.
“It made me sad because it was a reminder that it’s not just California. It’s not just in one place. It’s everywhere,” he said. “And no matter where you go, climate change is going to catch up with you.”
As rising global temperatures bake the surrounding pine trees, oaks and madrones of the Sierra Nevada mountains, residents living in its scattered communities have a choice: to remain in the fire’s path or hedge their bets elsewhere.
It is a question my family found ourselves facing, but in reverse, after my partner inherited a house in Nevada County. It is a place where we both spent our childhoods and where we hoped to one day raise our daughter.
Fire has always been part of the bargain of living there. But as climate change fuels wildfires of unprecedented proportions, it’s rewriting the terms of that old agreement. As it does, that’s forced us, like many in the forested foothills, to renegotiate what we’re willing to do — and how much we’re willing to risk — to live there.
In Nevada County, measures to mitigate the threat of wildfires are underway, but their effectiveness has been stunted by decades of land management policies that sought to suppress all fires and led to an overabundance of brush and trees. Now, residents are racing to make up for lost time.
For communities across the globe similarly poised on the knife’s edge of catastrophe — whether the threat is rising seas, stronger hurricanes or longer periods of extreme heat — the question is how to preserve and protect these places, or as retired fire scientist and Nevada County resident Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman put it, “What does it mean to live in different environments? What does it mean to grow up in an area? What does it mean to be human?”
My partner’s mom, Barbara, was 79 when she passed away.
She left behind a two-bedroom Mediterranean-style home with an orange exterior, its hue varied and weathered, one wall splashed robin’s egg blue. Situated on a 13-acre property in the northwestern corner of Nevada County, the house is not only a mausoleum of her artifacts but a physical manifestation of her memory.
Barbara had suffered a stroke, and we spent 10 days in the hospital hoping for an improvement in her condition that never came. During that time, and in the weeks after she passed away, the house was a vessel for our grief. It held us because it held so much of her.
When we finally turned off the lights and locked the doors to return home to the Bay Area, we did so reluctantly, wondering how and when we might move our lives there. Beneath our decision was an emerging hope for our not-yet-one-year-old daughter — that, although she would never know her grandmother, she might know the house her grandmother built.
That summer, smoke from two dozen wildfires loomed over Nevada County and drifted across the state. On one particularly bad day in the Bay Area, it grew so thick daylight turned to dusk. It was then when I first began to wonder what kind of future our daughter might inherit if we chose to move to Nevada County, and what it would be like to live in a place where my own memories were constantly clashing with new realities.
Nothing left to burn
They call her the voice of doom.
From her home office overlooking the Yuba River in Nevada County, Pascale Fusshoeller translates the precise, militaristic jargon of wildland firefighting departments into English, conveying need-to-know information on a fire’s origins, its speed and direction to readers across the region.
Fusshoeller co-founded and edits YubaNet.com, which began in 1999 as the Internet burgeoned from niche to mainstream. She and her wife, Susan Levitz, both career journalists, intended to run a community events page.
That changed, Fusshoeller said, the day the site went live, and she spotted a towering plume of smoke rising from the ridge facing their home.
“That’s how we got into fire information,” she said. She hasn’t looked back. “It helps people.”
For Fusshoeller, this means that whenever a fire occurs in the Sierra Nevada mountains, her days start early and end late.
It used to be that fire season began in August and wrapped up by the end of September. Now, she says if there is a “fire season” at all, it begins in May and ends in November.
“And of course, some years, there’s large fires in December,” she added.
As global temperatures rise, so, too, does the number of wildfires. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, across the western United States, human-caused climate change has doubled the cumulative area burned by wildfires over natural levels since 1984.
Patrick Gonzalez, a forest ecologist and climate change scientist at UC Berkeley, said the problem is particularly acute in California, where a prolonged drought in recent years has dried out plants and soils.
“In Northern and Central California, almost all of the increase in burned area [over natural levels] has come from human-caused climate change since 1996,” he said.
“That’s not to say that one day we will not have a large catastrophic fire here,” she said. Nevada County shares the same mix of vegetation, topography and climate conditions. “There is nothing else left to burn in the foothills.”
There is something very Californian about believing it’s possible to survive anywhere.
Joan Didion knew this. In her 1968 collection of essays, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Didion wrote of the desert metropolis’ clime, “Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability.”
The same could be said of the entire state. Where early white settlers found a floodplain, they built their capital city, Sacramento. And even amid the rubble of the city’s most destructive earthquake, San Franciscans nonetheless rebuilt.
My own earliest memory, if an infant can be said to have one, is of a thick column of gray and black smoke rising behind my family’s house the day we evacuated from a wildfire.
It was Sept. 11, 1988. I was just over a year old. My dad would later describe the fire’s path: not a continuous wall, but jagged, like fingers on a hand, touching some homes, refusing others — sparing ours.
“And you kind of wonder why,” he mused, “why did it spare that house and burn that one?”
It was called the 49er Fire because it broke out near Highway 49 in Nevada County. It tore through nearly 36,000 acres of forest and grasslands and destroyed almost 150 homes. At the time, it was the state’s third-largest wildfire and is still the county’s most destructive.
In a prediction that feels prescient today, Jerry Partain, then-director of California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, now called Cal Fire, told The Sacramento Bee, “This [fire] is the classic. This is what we’ve been preaching about for the past several years. This is just the forerunner.”
What Partain had been preaching about — fireproofing homes and managing the surrounding vegetation — is now a familiar sermon to anyone living in Northern California today, but one that was met with obstinance by the willful inhabitants of that era, a generally unyielding lot with a profound distrust of government matronism and a deep reverence for stick-to-itiveness, the miner’s luck and the sanctity of private property.
Speaking with The Sacramento Bee, Partain stood in front of a map detailing the fire’s course, acknowledging there was no way to save every home. “It will continue to happen in the future,” he said.
With the future came more residents, living with more risk. Between 1990 and 2010, the county’s population grew 26%, mirroring a trend seen across the country (PDF) as more people than ever flooded into wildland areas.
That wildfires have become more destructive over the past 40 years is simple math, UC Berkeley’s Gonzalez said. “The losses of homes and people, who sadly die in a wildfire, is a function of the number of people who live in fire-prone areas,” he said.
He continued: “Climate change is exacerbating the risk. So, that makes it even more important [to limit] the number of people who move into or build new houses in fire-prone areas.”
The 49er Fire left its mark on my psyche, attuning me to dry, summer winds, focusing my attention on anything that could produce an errant spark, and heightening my awareness, early on, of my own precarity.
But for many in Nevada County, myself included, it was still only a glimpse into a distant future. Brute reckoning came much later, in 2018, with the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, which is one county away from Nevada County.
YubaNet’s Fusshoeller held a town hall event a week after the fire began. Minutes after the doors opened, the seats had filled to capacity, followed by the building’s overflow rooms.
“And then there were still people outside,” Fusshoeller recalled. “It was the whole community. They were scared.”
The fire became a wake-up call — and a rallying cry.
“We regularly hear that this is the next Camp Fire,” said Jamie Jones, the executive director of the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County, a nonprofit formed in the wake of the 49er Fire.
“We have watersheds that if a fire starts on the wrong day and the wrong conditions — or you could call it the right conditions — we could have a potential catastrophic loss like Paradise did,” she said.
“It became a huge priority to fund [wildfire] mitigation work,” Jones said. “We just kind of grabbed the bull by the horns and said, ‘We’ll do it. We’ll be that large nonprofit to work in this space.’”
But the Camp Fire also incited residents to act. Today, Nevada County, with a population of just over 100,000 people, boasts the highest number of Firewise Communities in the country — a program run by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) that encourages neighborhoods to organize and collectively complete fire safety projects, such as thinning trees along evacuation routes and clearing excess brush on individual properties.
Before the Camp Fire, Jones said there were 22 Firewise Communities in the county. As of October, there were 94, according to the NFPA.
“I think it speaks volumes to how committed our community is to protecting their families, their loved ones, their neighbors, and the community that we live in,” Jones said.
The project provided free brush clearing on residents’ properties to allow firefighters to more easily defend the town of Grass Valley. But four years after the first phase began, many of the property owners have failed to maintain their land.
On a recent tour, Jones pointed to a property where the homeowner had positioned himself as a poster child of compliance. Crispy brush and small trees, perfect kindling for a big wildfire, now crowded beneath towering oak and manzanita trees.
“He sold two years into the project,” she lamented. The new property owner never picked up the work. Continued compliance requires constant care — and a long memory.
Our place on the planet
As the spokesperson for the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe, Shelly Covert carries with her a cultural memory that spans centuries. What it takes to live in wildland areas today, she said, is in some ways not so different from when her relatives lived freely off the land — and that is constant tending.
For her relatives, that meant cutting trees, harvesting smaller branches, and collecting reeds — work now done with chainsaws and machines.
The difference, she said, is that the Nisenan used these materials in their homes, acorn granaries, tools and baskets. That these same actions also made the forests more resilient to — and protected the Nisenan from — catastrophic wildfires was secondary. Today, the accumulation of these same plant materials is a burden.
“Nobody wants it,” she said. “So, how are forests ever going to be tended in that way again when we don’t need the freaking stuff that’s all over the ground?”
Nevada County’s Fire Safe Council is trying to help relieve that burden with a free green waste disposal site in Grass Valley. This past June, on the last day it was open for the season, crews heaped logs into towering piles, mounded branches atop each other, and stacked firewood for the taking.
Suzi and Doug Clipperton waited in line for their turn to unload the towering pile of branches in the back of their truck. They had moved to the county from Palm Springs two years ago, and though their property is relatively small, at one acre, it still produces an abundance of vegetation.
Without the green waste disposal site, Suzi Clipperton said she would be forced to pay to get rid of the materials at the dump.
“It’s so expensive, even the green waste,” she said. “Over $25 a truckload, over and over several times a month.”
Getting to a truly sustainable lifestyle in the forested foothills is still a long way off, Covert said.
“It’s just the way we’ve built our built lives,” she said.
But that’s not what people, myself included, want to talk to her about these days. All we want to talk to her about is how to use fire to fight fire.
The practice, called controlled or prescribed burns, has gained momentum in recent years as a way to clear the brush and grasses that fuel megafires. But Covert’s relatives also burned the land to remove bug infestations from trees, clear land for hunting and travel and promote certain kinds of plants. Public officials have been increasingly turning to her to tap into the tribe’s cultural knowledge.
On one hand, Covert said she appreciates having a seat at the table, an opportunity her grandparents were never afforded. On the other, she said it’s hard for her not to roll her eyes during those same meetings.
“Don’t tell me those old people didn’t sit there and say, ‘You can’t not burn the land.’ It was unfathomable to them,” she said. “We have to burn the land, and we have to burn our dead.”
When white settlers arrived during the Gold Rush, they not only outlawed the practice of burning the land but also the Nisenan practice of cremating their dead. And, while government officials now recognize fire as essential to maintaining forest health, Nisenan cremations are still outlawed.
During those ceremonies, the nearest female relatives of the deceased would mix pine pitch with ash to blacken their heads and shoulders, washing their faces only after the mixture had worn off, thus defining the period of mourning. Other relatives and friends gathered around to sing and cry. Every year, an annual mourning ceremony, or “Second Burning,” was held for everyone who died that year.
“My grandma said that the old ladies used to wipe each other’s tears and hold each other up because they were so fraught with sadness,” Covert said.
To Covert, burning the land and burning the dead are not two practices with distinct purposes and outcomes. They are the same practice for the same purpose of binding humanity to all other life and to the land.
She said the cremation ceremony is at the core: “It is the kickstarter of all these other protocols that come into play that are respect for the land, respect for the animals, respect for the spirit, respect for one another. And that’s it.”
It is the foundation that allows them to see themselves as both indebted to a place and responsible for it.
“We have thumbs. We can light fire. We can pull and tend the rubbish in the forests,” Covert said. “That is our place on this planet.”
In a small community on the western flank of Nevada County, atop a ridge overlooking Lake Wildwood, where the 49er Fire raged 35 years ago, three young men holding drip torches set fire to the land.
It was an abnormally cool June day. The crew of roughly a dozen, dressed in flannel shirts, blue jeans and boots, worked methodically downhill. Some held water bladders to douse fires burning into tree roots. Others were posted at control lines to ensure the fire stayed within its boundaries. One roamed the perimeter on a motorcycle to watch for spotfires.
They were lighting a controlled burn on the roughly 80-acre property, with the twin goals of reducing the wildfire risk and promoting native plants, which often need the low-intensity fires to drop seeds or sprout from dormancy.
“When you see the effects of fire, it all makes sense,” said Tim Van Wagner, an organic farmer in Nevada County and broadcast burn practitioner, who led the burn that day. “All of a sudden, you actually realize the insanity of how we have been able to suppress fire and the damage it’s done.”
The more fuel there is to burn, the hotter the fire becomes, and the more likely they are to permanently incinerate even the most fire-adapted forests.
But bringing “good fire” back hasn’t been easy, said fire historian and author Stephen Pyne.
“We spent 50 years trying to take all fire out of the landscape,” he said, “and we’ve spent 50 years trying to put good fire back in.”
Federal regulators restricted broadcast burns beginning in 1910, following a particularly fearsome spate of fires known as the “Big Blowup,” when some 3 million acres of forestland in Idaho and Montana burned over the course of two short days (PDF), killing 86 people — the most in US history, until this year’s fires in Maui. By the time the National Parks Service changed its policy in 1968, areas that had been accustomed to periodic fires were overloaded with fuels.
Combine that excess vegetation with rising temperatures, and Pyne said existing models of fire behavior no longer hold.
“They are being overwhelmed,” he said. “We’re seeing it in Canada now and parts of the Mediterranean, as well as parts of the U.S., and we’re creating a new world out of this.”
Humans once controlled fire. Now, Pyne said fire is controlling us.
“We’ve taken what had always been our best friend, and we’re making it our worst enemy,” he said. “Even if we tame the climate, we remove the fossil fuel part of it, we still have a relentless obligation to work with fire in the lands that remain.”
“It hasn’t been a smooth process,” said Van Wagner, who is in the process of obtaining the certification. Without access to insurance, “it can be a basic game-over,” he said.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, fewer than 1% of controlled burns get out of control, but they still make neighbors nervous.
“It’s foreign to most people,” Van Wagner said. “So, there’s more of a fear response than understanding.”
For Fancy Fechser, who owns the Nevada County property where Van Wagner was burning, learning to live with fire is part of what it means to live in the foothills. She and her husband moved there with their family from Los Angeles in 2021.
“It’s the luck of the draw here, and that’s something you have to live with,” she said. “But the control you can have — I mean, I feel so much better now that we did this.”
Fechser hopes that in the long run, the work done here will make both her property and the surrounding community safer from megafires and that it’ll be more resilient for the climate changes to come.
“I don’t love looking at a charred backyard, but I know the point,” she said. “We have to look in the future here.”
Grieving the future
For Oakland-based journalist Erica Hellerstein, part of looking into California’s future means grieving — not a lost past, but a future that may never come to be.
Reflecting on this idea in a 2022 Coda Story essay, she wrote, “A building that burns can be rebuilt. But if fire incinerates a state of mind, can that be put back together?”
Hellerstein remembers the rupture when her memories of the past severed from her expectations of the future. It was September 2020, and smoke from fires burning across the state had smothered the sky. She watched, with jarring dissonance, as partygoers in hazmat masks waited outside a nightclub in San Francisco.
“They were just pretending everything was normal,” she said. “That was another turning point for me, just cognitively of being like, ‘OK, yeah, things are really not what I remember from my childhood growing up here.’”
For me, it was visiting Paradise this summer five years after the Camp Fire ravaged the area, and seeing its pine trees replaced with shrubby manzanita and sprouting oaks. As fires and drought kill the mixed conifer trees that give the Sierra foothills their signature beauty, other plants more accustomed to Southern California’s clime are slowly replacing them.
These pine trees — whose smell, earthy and fresh after the first fall rain, is permanently imprinted in my olfactory memory — are some of the most threatened. Of all the impacts climate change may bring, their prospective loss is one I haven’t quite reconciled.
“There’s so much grief there because we’ve had it so good in our life,” said Sam Hinrichs, a resident of Nevada County for 35 years. “We’ve had it so good, and we didn’t pay attention to that.”
Hinrichs was once a volunteer firefighter and used to do wildfire mitigation work. Now, she sits on the board of the North San Juan Fire Protection District in Nevada County. She’s keenly aware of her own risk of living three miles down a gravel road, surrounded by forest.
“I do look at those climate maps, and I see where the danger zones are,” she said. “I think about fire every day, all the time.”
She’s watched the pine trees around her house turn brown from bark beetles that thrive in hotter weather and overproduce, killing the trees they feed on. It’s something she wants her son, Stanley, to see, so he can learn what to do about it.
Though he’s only 6 years old, she’s already gotten him involved in tending their land, identifying which pine and cedar trees to fell, their seedlings replanted upslope, where it’s cooler, and which Black Oaks that can tolerate warmer weather, to leave in place.
“I’m not feeling precious about [the pines] anymore,” she said. “I just want to give him skills for resilience and noticing what needs to happen.”
Noticing, and knowing, what needs to happen is not an innate skill. It’s one Hinrichs developed from growing up in the area and from hand-clearing most of her 17-acre property. Using chainsaws and pole saws, she’s worked acre-by-acre, determining which plants hold birds’ nests or provide cover for nursing deers and which can be removed. It’s a labor-intensive process, but it also gives her unique insight into the forest’s health.
“The quail have come back since we’ve done this clearing,” she said. “I had only 12 quail, and now we’re up to like, 40, which is really cool.”
Hinrichs cannot know whether these efforts will be enough to save her home from a wildfire. Like many in this more remote part of the county, she lives without an insurer willing to cover her losses, relying instead on her own prevention efforts of hand-clearing the land and using prescribed fire to reduce her risk.
“I married this land. I’ve made this my project,” she said. “If my house burns down, I’ll build another one. Probably. I’m trying to make it so my house doesn’t burn down, but fire is also just part of this place.”
In her book, Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire, Berkeley author Colleen Morton Busch describes how a group of Buddhist monks at the Tassajara Zen Center in California’s Carmel Valley prepared for a wildfire bearing down on them.
It was 2008, during the Basin Complex Fire, and there was a debate among the monks and their students about the Zen Buddhist idea of non-attachment. Some argued to let the monastery burn.
In the end, a group of five decided to stay and defend it. Morton-Busch wrote:
A clever Zen teacher might say that standing back and letting the monastery burn belies a kind of attachment to the idea of non-attachment. That trying to save it when it could all burn anyway is true non-attachment. In trying to save Tassajara from the fire, or your own life from disaster, you can’t be sure you will. In fact, you can lose everything you love in a moment. And that’s not a reason to give up. If anything, it’s a reason to turn toward the fire, recognizing it as a force of both creation and destruction and to take care of what’s right in front of you because that’s all you actually have.
In some ways, the fire bearing down on Tassajara is a lot like climate change — a planetary fire bearing down on all of us.
In other ways, it is very different. The monks had one fire to contend with, but across the globe, we all face a different climate. It may be a hurricane in one area, record-breaking temperatures in another, deadly wildfires one year, heavy rains the next.
Then, there are the ways these changes quietly manifest, and are mourned or endured, in each heart and mind.
When Barbara was alive, and in the years since she passed away, most of our monthly trips up there were, and still are, spent tending the land.
In a continuous cycle of labor defined by the seasons, we begin after the first fall rain, limbing trees and pulling the flammable and invasive scotch broom. In the spring, we mow down annual grasses to preemptively rob the summer’s fires of their fuel. This year, I’ll bring my now four-year-old along with me. Together, we’ll gather branches from the ground to stack for kindling. And hopefully one day, we’ll both learn how to put good fire on the ground.
There is something liberating about this labor, which is itself a daily act of defiance.
It is here, in Nevada County and places like it, where no veneer of denialism can cover the stark realities already underway and where there is little time to brood over what is to come because there is too much work to be done now.
In these places, precariously poised on the knife’s edge of a shifting climate, the choice is clear: leave or turn toward the fire.
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