By Livia Albeck-Ripka
New York Times
After the Dixie Fire tore through this remote mountain town, Mike Savala heard that his home was, miraculously, still standing. He did not know the fate of his two cats.
“I had the cops lift my window up so they could get out, but I hope they did,” he told me Sunday, as he gingerly opened the door to his home for the first time since evacuating four days earlier.
The animals were nowhere to be found.
Savala, 40, a fire engine captain, is among hundreds of residents in the rural communities affected by the Dixie Fire, some of whom are beginning to try to put the pieces of their lives back together, even while remaining in a state of limbo under hazy skies and persistent evacuation orders.
Earlier this month, I traveled to the northeast part of California to cover the fire, which by Wednesday, had razed more than 500,000 acres and become the second largest in state history. I arrived early in the morning under a thick cloud of smoke to Quincy, a town 160 miles north of Sacramento.
There, the fair grounds have been transformed into a tent city of firefighters catching a breath and a few hours of sleep before heading back to the fire zone. Some guesthouses have become makeshift evacuation centers, cafes into soup kitchens.
Some in the town are camped out in trailers while others are holding out on nearby ranches, or in the dense forest — anguished by the prospect of leaving their homes, land and, in some cases, the animals that are their livelihood.
“You wonder from day to day what is going to happen next,” said Shiwaya Peck, an elder of the local Native American Maidu community, who has remained at her home in an evacuated area near Taylorsville, another small town near the blaze.
“I don’t want to see my grandpa’s trees burned up,” she told me as she stood in her garden among the fir and cedar giants.
On the front line of the blaze, weary, soot-covered firefighters who are working grueling two-week shifts say they are understaffed and exhausted. Some of the work involves fighting fire with fire as crews burn containment lines in cooler weather at night. Others stamp out spot fires and embers. Some hike tens of miles for several hours a day: Their only weapons to battle the fire are the tools they carry on their backs.
“We’re all very tired,” said Matt Sanders, 40, a fire engine captain. Of the fire season, he added, “I have no doubt in my mind that it’s just getting started.”
As of Friday, the Dixie fire was 31% contained, and hot dry conditions meant it showed no signs of abating. Several other smaller fires were also burning across California — where the fire season is growing in length every year, according to Cal Fire.
Just miles from Quincy, the fire front can be seen creeping down the mountainside, plumes of smoke rising above it. When the sun emerges, so does an atmosphere of anxiety: The layer of smoke holding the flames at bay lifts, allowing conditions for the fire to worsen.
For those experiencing the Dixie Fire, it can be hard to believe their bucolic mountain communities have been transformed into a hazy-skied disaster zone, where the roads in and out are blocked.
“I didn’t think this would happen, and then it was gone,” Savala said over the weekend, as he surveyed the destruction in Greenville.
The last I heard, he had still not found his cats.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.