Politics

Even in a California Town Destroyed by Wildfire, Residents Can’t Agree on Climate Change

But the signs are getting harder to ignore.

A welcome bench sits in front of the rubble of a building that was destroyed by the Dixie Fire. The sky is a yellow haze.
Greenville, California, on Wednesday. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Margaret Garcia has spent the last two decades living in Greenville, California, a town that for all intents and purposes no longer exists. It was devoured last week by the Dixie Fire, the largest single blaze in California history. Garcia, a reporter for the local Plumas News, wrote a eulogy for her “defiantly quirky, beautiful adopted hometown … a microcosm of America and often frustrated with each other.” She told me, “We are living global warming”—but not all of her neighbors agree. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Garcia about the politics of Greenville, whether the Dixie Fire is changing residents’ minds about climate change, and whether the town should rebuild at all. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Mary Harris: I loved your eulogy because it’s so full of love.

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Margaret Garcia: And that really played out in our own family. You know, no one in our family has ever voted for a Republican. And when my son went to get his first part-time job when he was 14, he was hired by John Hunter of Hunter’s Hardware, who definitely knew what family Diego came from and is arguably one of the most right-wing guys in town. But he knew that our family always worked and we instilled hardworking values in Diego, and Diego worked for him for four years all through high school.

So the politics didn’t matter.

So politics didn’t matter. I would bring John tamales at Christmas and joke with him about, like, thanks for hiring my son. And he’d just sit there and laugh at me back and stuff. So we definitely have to help each other out at all times.

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We are the smallest town in Plumas County, and often people who live in Greenville feel kind of left out by the rest of the county. We’re not an incorporated city. We have the largest Native American presence of any of the towns in Plumas County. We do look a little different than the other towns up there. It has always been, despite the conservatism, a more open area for LGBTQ folks. There is a number of old, retired gay and lesbian couples living in and around the area, and our Mexican American family never felt that out of place there either.

Why do you think that is?

I think ’cause Greenville really has a strong live-and-let-live attitude, and that really pulls it through a lot of stuff. That’s how we are.

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When did you start thinking about fire? You’ve alluded to the fact that you felt kind of protected in Greenville. When did that begin to change?

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When it hit Indian Falls [about 10 miles away from Greenville]. It’s when Indian Falls burned that I started to get nervous.

Was that this year with the Dixie Fire?

Yeah, that was about five days before our fire. This is day 29 of the Dixie Fire. It’s been going on since July 13.

People outside the area have no idea what it’s like to live with a fire for a month. I mean, I’m from Whittier, California, that suffered an earthquake in 1987, and the earthquake lasted, it felt like, a minute. And then it was over and then there was destruction and then there was 10 years of rebuilding. But having a fire go on for a whole month—and I guess this morning we’re still at right around 30 percent containment—it’s relentless. It’s exhausting. Everyone is traumatized. There’s anxiety through the roof, and you can’t plan. All the things we take for granted that we can do day to day, you cannot do during fire because you have to think about, well, this plan is great, unless we burn down. Even the school district has no idea when their exact start date is. Can’t plan anymore.

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You talked about how confusing it was that there was an evacuation order that was then lifted and people began to come back, and then all of a sudden the evacuation order was back. That must have just been so crazy. And especially because I’ve seen some firefighters and others talk about people who refused to leave the area and how problematic that was. But it sounds to me like it didn’t feel like there were good decisions for anyone to make.

You’re right. But I think what people should keep in mind, too, is we’re a rural area. There’s lots of ranches. There are many people who have acres. So they have dogs, they have cats, they have chickens, they have cows, goats, all this stuff. And where, how, is someone supposed to evacuate in a couple of hours, with the responsibility of all those animals?

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What did they do? Did people just leave their animals?

A lot of people got as much as they could out. But there’s a lot of people who stayed behind because they were related to the fire department or feeding people, and they went around everyone’s houses and fed the animals and watered the animals.

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You’ve talked about a lot of family that you have in Greenville—your ex, your mom, your kids. So how are all of these people doing now?

I left on July 15 with my kids. My kids didn’t want to come back.

Because they were worried about fire?

They were just like, what are we going back to? They were very like, I don’t want to be there. But my son’s girlfriend, her parents lost their house in the fire. And, as everyone knows everyone, her grandfather is the one who hired my son at the hardware store. And she just wanted to be reunited with her mom so badly so we came back up.

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So you caravanned—your son, his girlfriend, you.

Yeah, and it was with real trepidation. Once we reach the county line, we’re evacuees, because we can’t go back, we can only go back to Quincy, the neighboring town, about 22 miles away. We actually haven’t been back to Greenville ’cause we’re not allowed in. So it feels really weird, where we left, just on this trip, and we come back as evacuees who can’t get into our places.

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So you haven’t even been able to be back to your property?

No, I am relying on photos and the hearsay of other people. Where my mother lives is safe for now, as is the tiny house that my husband and I have been living in while we develop the property that just burned down. We have no hope for our own property.

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No hope?

No, because everything around it burned and we didn’t have a structure up yet. We were doing the foundational work. And if the house next to it was on fire, there’s no reason you would try to save the property next door. There’s nothing really on it except equipment. And we lost about $100,000 worth of equipment ’cause it wasn’t insured. You can’t really get insurance anymore.

I can’t help but think about this climate change report that just came out from the United Nations, which is pretty grim. It basically says we’re going to keep seeing global warming get worse if we don’t take action pretty immediately. Are people in your community putting these two things together? Is it still too early and too raw to do that?

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Absolutely not. I’ve seen the postings and I’ve heard people in town squarely blame this all on forest management.

Instead of global warming.

Yes. And when they say forest management, what they really mean are Democrats who went to college and have degrees in forest management and they are doing bad things and trying to save spotted owls or whatever. And then there’s the rest of us who have seen the writing on the wall. Feather River is the lowest I have ever seen it since I’ve lived here. When my kids and I were leaving on July 15—the river and highway follow each other out of the canyon—we were looking at the river and thinking, it is so low, I’ve never seen it that low, and how do we survive this?

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And it’s frustrating for me. I’m what I deem a bi-regional Californian. I was born in Southern California and now I’m married to someone for 2½ years who has a house in Southern California. But I work up here and I realize that the populated side of our state has still no idea that here we are, we are at the top of the watershed, they’re using our water to water their lawns and not realizing that they’re going to have a nice, green, watered lawn and the rest of their state’s going to be on fire and gone. And it’s frustrating to me, as somebody from both places, not feeling like the two sides are connected and realize how much they’re connected and how much we’re all going down in this.

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You’ve talked about your town as being the kind of place where it’s so small that even if people are politically divided, they just have to get on the same page about issues. And you would hope that a town like yours could come to an understanding. So I wonder if you’ve seen any progress toward that. When someone says to you, oh, this is forest management issues, do you push back, or do your friends push back and say, well, actually, I think there might be something bigger happening?

I think we try to do it in other ways. I mean, those same people who say that also fish, and they know that the river and the creeks are low. So you can usually get to that conversation in those ways.

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And we had a fire back in 2007 called the Moonlight Fire, and not as much was written about it because there’s nobody who lives back there. But as the Dixie Fire started hitting the burnout of that area, we’re like, great, it’ll go out because there’s nothing left to burn back there. And it’s burning today. And so that idea that if we had proper forest management and did all these burns, we wouldn’t go through this, or if we had thinning of trees, we wouldn’t go through this—well, the Dixie Fire is taking over areas that we can say did have proper forest management, and it hasn’t made a difference. So that is a conversation I think a bunch of us are having right now.

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How do you think about the ethics of rebuilding? Should people rebuild?

Well, that in and of itself is a question of privilege, because this is a Native American area, and why should they leave? This is their homeland. Why should people tell them that we shouldn’t have a town here anymore? Here, go someplace else. Forget about your area.

But then there’s a lot of us in our late 30s to mid-50s who invested time, energy, and into a house that was going to be our little affordable piece of California. And I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. Certainly no one’s gonna buy our property. We can’t sell it. And a lot of us still have mortgages. So what are we going to do? Are we gonna walk away? What are we going to do?

I was born in California. I watched as our old towns all over California have become places only millionaires can live. And so what’s that going to do to our state? I lived in San Francisco eight years where teachers would hit the poverty line of what it takes to live there. I love the state. I love so much about it, but I feel things like these fires are going to force us to move.

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