TAYLORSVILLE, Calif. — The Dixie fire, now the third-largest wildfire in California’s history, is still raging across the tinder-dry forest of the Sierra Nevada. In its wake, the town of Greenville has been reduced to scattered bricks and crumpled sheets of metal.
Five people are missing, but some residents in Taylorsville, just 10 miles southeast, have refused to heed evacuation orders.
Instead, on Friday, they gathered at the Taylorsville Tavern, the town’s only bar, for a beer.
“I’m not going to leave,” said Susan Doran, 71, who sat in the smoky haze at the tavern, beside her partner, Pete Neer, a rancher. The two said they could not abandon their animals. Their emergency plan was to leave their old wooden house and escape into the paddock, Doran added, where they believed they would be safe among the cows.
The couple is among a handful of residents who say they will not evacuate, despite persistent warnings and orders from authorities. By Saturday afternoon, the fire was just 21% contained and had ravaged 446,723 acres of dry scrub in Northern California, but Doran, a former firefighter, and Neer say they are familiar with fire and have calculated the risks involved. “I’m not scared,” Neer said. “These fires, they’re never going to get me.”
This kind of stubbornness is frustrating authorities and firefighters, who are working grueling hours to try to tamp down the inferno, and who say that those who stay behind make their work even more challenging.
“They’re at great risk,” said Jeff Gillette, a firefighter and spokesperson for the Dixie fire as he stood outside the fire base in Quincy, a town 130 miles north of Sacramento that has become a base for firefighters facing the blazes across Plumas County.
“We have to go in and save those people,” he added. “Just like Greenville.”
The Dixie fire has been raging since last month, possibly started by a tree that fell on a power line owned by Pacific Gas and Electric, California’s largest utility. On Friday, a federal judge ordered the utility company to explain its role in starting the blaze, which has ravaged the drought-stricken landscape.
In Greenville, residents had also been reluctant to evacuate, certain the flames would not reach their town.
“I tried to defend it to the last second, and the fire just pushed me out,” said Jose Garcia, 34, who lost his home and his taco restaurant. He said that he had only seconds to escape. “We lost everything.”
Others said that they had been reluctant to leave after evacuation orders were later lifted and then reinstated.
“We were probably some of the last people out of there,” said Teresa Clark, 49, who said she had evacuated the first time together with her mother, who uses a wheelchair, partner and pets, but that the cost and difficulty — and the fact that the fires had not initially reached Greenville — made her reluctant to leave a second time.
But on Wednesday afternoon, explosive, hot flames were rapidly approaching. “I knew our town was going up,” she said. “That’s when the sheriff pulled up and said, ‘You guys need to leave.’”
Clark added, “I was scared to death.”
Dan Kearns, a volunteer firefighter, described fire “raining out of the sky,” as he did his best to put out spot fires in the town, before it became unsafe to continue. The fires “don’t just spread, they literally explode,” he said.
“No one expected to lose the whole town,” he added.
By the weekend, Greenville — a Gold Rush-era town once lined with historic buildings — was left in charred ruins; lamp posts were buckled, and trucks were nothing but smoldering husks. The air was thick with smoke and the stench of burning inorganic materials. All was quiet, but for the sound of cracking trees.
Some of those in Taylorsville who refused to evacuate said they were somewhat rattled by the fate of Greenville.
“It got a lot scarier yesterday,” Judy Johnson, a bartender at the Taylorsville Tavern, said Friday.
“They didn’t expect that,” she added of the townspeople. Although the remote towns of Plumas County had been suffering through weeks of choking air, she added, it still came as a shock. “It was like a normal day.”
Guido Armanino, 33, whose family has owned the tavern for generations, has packed his most valuable belongings into the car, but he said he planned to stay as long as possible to defend the property.
“I’m going to stay here until we can’t save this place,” he said. “We aren’t just going to leave this family heirloom.”
Doran and Neer, the rancher, have seen nothing that would persuade them to evacuate. Roads leading in and out of the town are now blocked by authorities, which means that people cannot return to Taylorsville if they were to leave to get gas, medications or groceries.
“It’s really kind of eerie,” Doran said. “Time is just running one day into another.”
On Friday afternoon, as ash fell from the sky over Neer’s ranch, he and Doran described watching the mountains northwest of the ranch explode into flames the previous evening.
“You could see all the trees crowning,” said Neer as he pointed to the horizon, now made invisible by the thick smoke hanging over the field. He added, “The clouds were just a red glow.”
Firefighters worked to contain the blazes Friday and Saturday. The smoky conditions helped lower the heat, but they said they were stretched thin, working grueling two-week, 12- and 24-hour shifts that often ran overtime.
“It makes it a lot harder if they decide to stick around,” said Jordan Lucio, 26, a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service.
If he lived in the area, he said, “I would get out.”