When Your Town Burns Down

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S1: Margaret Garcia has spent the last couple of decades living in a town that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists. That’s because it got devoured last week by the Dixie fire, the largest single blaze in California history.

S2: It just seems surreal. I would have thought downtown was the safest area, not the one that was going to burn,

S1: Margaret says her little town of Greenville. It was supposed to be safe. It wasn’t tucked away in the woods. It was right next to a big lake. But there had been these warning signs.

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S2: We’d been on edge all summer because this is an area where when I moved here almost 20 years ago, it never got over like 90 some odd degrees, 93 degrees, maybe twice in the summer. It got that hot. And we had just experienced 105 degree heat as the median temperature for three weeks was 105 degrees. So it’s like you’re

S1: living global warming.

S2: We are living global warming. We didn’t anticipate the winds being so strong and entirely pushing the fire around the lake into downtown.

S1: Margaret cleared out for the summer with her kids and her husband, but her mom was still there. Last week, her mother had just gotten the all clear to return to her home when the fire started pushing closer.

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S2: And, you know, I’m calling her saying, mom, you have to evacuate again. She’s like, I can’t go anywhere. I put clothes in the dryer. I but, you know, she’s like the clothes in the dryer. I just did a load of dishes. I put all my clothes the way I can’t go again. I’m like, no, you have to go now.

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S1: Margaret is a writer, works at the kind of small town journalistic outfit that is a real lifeline in rural communities like hers. The Plumas News, it’s named for Plumas County. As her mom was driving out of Greenville one more time, Margaret was monitoring her sources.

S2: I just remember our Board of Supervisors, Representative Kevin Goss, and I’m I’m looking at updates that he’s posting. And he he kept posting, you know, where the fire was and how well people were fighting it and all this stuff. And I’m like, OK, OK, we’ve got it. And then all of a sudden I see a Facebook update from Kevin and it just says, Pray for Greenville. And that immediately told me that we had lost Greenville without ever seeing any fire photos, and about ten minutes later I started seeing the photos.

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S1: What did the photos look like?

S2: The first video I saw was still video of our, you know, built in the, I guess, 60s concrete library. And the concrete was still there. But everything inside the concrete building was gone. And then the video slowly pans down the street and my office is on the next block. And I can see in the video I can see the pharmacy on fire and then I could see the police station on fire.

S1: I know you’ve talked about watching these videos and how hard it is to see the fire. But you’re also you’re also a journalist, so I’m kind of curious about that because I’m sure you know the value of showing others what happened.

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S2: Yeah, part of me wanted to know immediately what’s going on, what’s happening, who is it happening to? And the other part of me was, you know, emotional and personal. And I’m like, I, I don’t want my my house or my office or whatever to be trauma porn for the nation. You know, this is very personal and it was a very special place.

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S1: Today on the show, when California catches fire, this is what we lose. I’m Mary Harris, you’re listening to what next? Stick around. Margaret Garcia was drawn to northern California for its beauty. She loves the view of the nearby mountain peak, Mount Huff. She says it makes her feel like Julie Andrews spinning around the Austrian countryside.

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S2: There’s not a lot of trees on top and there will be a little bit of snow on it and a giant blue sky and and all the green. And you just feel like, oh, my gosh, I found the last, you know, ungentrified piece of California where you can get a house for under 200000 dollars, which is unheard of in California. And it just felt like the right place to be.

S1: You wrote a eulogy to your town. I’m wondering if you could just read the first four paragraphs of it.

S2: Yeah. My defiantly quirky, beautiful, adopted hometown turned into a ghost town last night. There’s so many things I could tell you about Greenville. There were over a thousand people and change though the population. Stein still said 2000. We all have an opinion about everything. We are a microcosm of America. Often frustrated with each other, Greenville is filled with do gooders, volunteers, retirees, hippies, bikers, rednecks, ranchers, cowboys, Native Americans and people who never felt like the town they were born into was quite right for them. We were extended families and single moms and dads. We were drunks. We were sober. We tried not to be too judgmental. Someone judges back and we were recent survivors of Campfire two. We were an island of misfit toys and we liked it like that. Everywhere in the country, there are people not getting along anymore because of different political perspectives. But in Greenville there flat out wasn’t enough of us to take sides. You had to have each other’s backs anyhow, whether you agreed with someone or not.

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S1: I love that remembrance because it’s so full

S2: of love and that really played out in our own family. You know, I my mother’s older lesbians in town, no one in our family has ever voted for a Republican. And when my son went to get his, you know, 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, you know, is arguably one of the most right wing guys in town. But he knew that our family always worked and we instilled, you know, hard working values. San Diego. And you worked for him for four years all through high school.

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S1: And so the politics didn’t matter.

S2: So politics didn’t matter. I would bring John Tomalis 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. 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 unincorporated 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 is always been, despite the conservatism, a more open area for LGBTQ folks. There is like a number of old retired gay and lesbian couples living in and around the area. And as our, you know, Mexican-American family never felt that out of place there either.

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S1: Why do you think that is?

S2: I think is 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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S1: When did you start thinking about fire like you’ve alluded to the fact that you felt kind of protected in Greenville? When did that begin to change?

S2: When it hit Indian Falls.

S1: Indian Falls is about 10 miles away from Greenville Margaret town.

S2: It’s Lenn Indian Fallsburg that I started to get nervous.

S1: Was that this year with the Dixie fire?

S2: Yeah, that was about five days before our fire. This is day 29 of the Dixie fire. It’s been going on since July 13th. 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, you know, with the earthquake last, 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. You can’t. 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 like, well, this plan is great unless we burn down. You know, even the school district here has no idea when their exact start date is. We can’t plan anymore.

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S1: You talked about how confusing it was, like 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 because people refused to leave. And then the firefighters are trying to get them to safety. They’re not fighting the fire. But it sounds to me like it didn’t feel like there were good decisions for anyone to make.

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S2: You’re right. But I think that people should keep in mind, too, is is we’re a rural area. There’s lots of ranches. There are many people who have acres, you know, 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? But the responsibility of all those animals,

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S1: what did they do? Did people just leave their animals?

S2: A lot of people got as much as they could out, but there was 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, you know, watered the animals.

S1: Hmm. So you’ve talked about a lot of family that you have in Greenville, your ex, your mom, you have kids. So how are all of these people doing now? I know you just kind of came back.

S2: Yeah, I left on July 15th with my kids. My kids didn’t want to come back

S1: because they were worried about fire.

S2: They were just like, what are we going back to? You know, they were very like, I don’t want to be there sort of thing. 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, you know, she just wanted to be reunited with her mom so badly. So we we came back up.

S1: So you caravanned your your son, his girlfriend, you.

S2: Yeah. And it was with real trepidation. We’re like once we reach the county line where evacuees, because we can’t go back, we can only go back to Quincy, the neighboring town, about twenty two miles away. We actually haven’t been back to Greenville because we’re not allowed in. So it feels really weird where we we left, you know, just on this trip and we come back as evacuees who can’t get into our places.

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S1: So you haven’t even been able to be back to your property now?

S2: 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, 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 100000 thousand dollars worth of equipment because it wasn’t insured. You can’t really get insurance anymore. But that’s another topic

S1: when we come back. You talk about wildfires long enough and you end up talking about climate change. So who to Margaret’s conservative neighbors blame for what just happened? You alluded to the fact that you lived in Greenville for two decades and had felt it change had felt the climate change where it didn’t used to get so hot, all of a sudden it was getting hotter and hotter. And at the same time, this devastating fire took place, it just can’t help but think about the fact that this climate change report 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?

S2: Absolutely not. I mean, I’ve seen the postings and I’ve heard people in town squarely blame this all on forest management

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S1: instead of global warming.

S2: 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’ve ever seen it since I’ve lived here. And when my kids and I were leaving on July 15th by the river and highway, follow each other, you know, out of the canyon, we’re looking at the river and thinking, you know. It is so low, I’ve never seen it that low and, you know, how do we survive this? And it’s frustrating for me. I’m a wet, wet Eyadema bioregional Californian. I my I was born in Southern California, and now, you know, I’m married to someone for two and a half years who has a house in Southern California. But I work up here and I realize that, you know, 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, you know, 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 is 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.

S1: 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 I think that’s a really interesting place to be in this climate change conversation. Because you would hope that a town like yours could come to an understanding. And so I wonder if you’ve seen any progress towards that, like when someone says to you, oh, this is forest management issues. You know what what happened here with this fire? Do you push back or or do your friends push back and say, well, actually, I think there might be something bigger happening?

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S2: I think we try to do it in other ways. I mean, the same people say that also fish and they know that the river creeks are low. So you can usually get to that conversation in those ways. And we know that, you know, we had a fire back in 2008, 2007 called The Moonlight Fire, and not much was written about it because there’s nobody who lives back there. But as the Dixie fire started hitting the burn out 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, you know, 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, you know, we could 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.

S1: I wonder how you think about next steps, like I know you’ve been to a center that’s working with survivors, giving them food and clothes and things like that, and I wonder what visiting a place like that told you about what happens now in Greenville?

S2: I don’t know. I was just on line chatting with someone this morning before this started, and he’s someone I thought would go down with the ship and he’s already thinking about leaving and not coming back. And, you know, when you when you find the the big lions in your community thinking they don’t want to stay, you know, it makes it harder. And none of us can make decisions about whether we’re staying or going until the fire’s out and we see what’s left. Hmm.

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S1: How do you think about the ethics of rebuilding like should?

S2: People rebuild well, I mean, that in and of itself is a question of privilege, right, because this is a Native American area and why should they leave? This is their homeland. So why should people tell them that, you know, we shouldn’t have a town here anymore, you know, here, go someplace else. Forget about your 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 going to buy our property. We can’t sell it. And a lot of us still have mortgages. So what are we going to you going to walk away or what are we going to do? And I’m. I was born in California. I have 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? You know, I lived in San Francisco eight years where, you know, 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.

S1: It’s funny, during this whole conversation, I hear you doing something that’s like so familiar to me, which is this laugh that I feel like I do

S2: when I’m nervous.

S1: Yeah. And to keep from feeling too much of the frustration all at once.

S2: Yeah. I’ve had a lot of gallows humor over here. I was joking around online with people going, well, I’m a writer, I write fiction as well as a reporter. And I’m like, well, nobody will ever see my horrible first drafts because they all burned. You know, that won’t be the really bad things will never be archived.

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S1: Margaret Garcia, thank you so much for joining me and telling me what you’re going through.

S2: Thank you so much.

S1: Margaret Garcia is a reporter for the Plumas News. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Danielle Hewitt Davis Land Carmel Delshad, Alan Ashworth’s and Mary Wilson were led by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter and that Mary desk. And if you’re curious what the holdup is over approving covid vaccines over at the FDA, my colleague Lizzie O’Leary, she had that exact same question. If you stay tuned to this feed tomorrow, she’s going to be here with our Friday show, what next? TBD, and she will answer that question. All right. I will be back in this feed on Monday.