© 2024 Blue Ridge Public Radio
Blue Ridge Mountains banner background
Your source for information and inspiration in Western North Carolina.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Despite The Wildfire Risk, Many People Plan To Rebuild In Doyle, Calif.


Wildfires have burned more than half a million acres in California so far this year. The major fires aren't ripping through densely populated cities yet. Instead, they're chewing up more rural communities. From member station KUNR, Lucia Starbuck reports from a small town in northern California near the Nevada border.

LUCIA STARBUCK, BYLINE: Doyle, Calif., has desert to the east and tree-covered mountains to the west. In mid-July, the Beckwourth Complex Fire swept through town.

MICHAEL SNOOK: It burned so hot, there's not much left.

STARBUCK: Michael Snook lost his home and ranch in the blaze.

SNOOK: That was literally a desk. That's the refrigerator here that doesn't really look like anything.

STARBUCK: The roof, front door and windows of Snook's home are gone.

SNOOK: My sister's ashes are in there somewhere.

STARBUCK: They sat on the headboard of his bed in a wooden urn. Snook doesn't think he'll be able to recover them.

KATHY CATRON: Yeah, we've lost a lot of homes. It's been a very disastrous year for us.

STARBUCK: Kathy Catron is the chief of Doyle's volunteer fire department. In her town of about 450 homes roughly 50 have burned in the last nine months in two separate wildfires. On top of the emotional toll, there's also a financial one.

CATRON: Fire insurance is very expensive, and there are a lot of people who can't afford it.

STARBUCK: Nearly a quarter of California's population lives in areas at high risk for wildfires, known as the wildland-urban interface. Getting and keeping fire insurance in these places is increasingly difficult. In recent years, insurance companies have declined to renew many policies in areas prone to wildfires. Catron says that coverage is crucial, especially for communities like Doyle.

CATRON: We get lightning strikes, get little fires. But everything's so dry, it's just - it's ready to burn.

STARBUCK: Catron has 16 volunteer firefighters, all Doyle residents, including her own family members. She's been with the volunteer fire department since she was 18 and took over as fire chief several years ago after her father retired. She says Doyle doesn't typically see fires this big.

CATRON: The forest and stuff up here on these mountains haven't burned in years. And so they're really thick, a lot of heavy fuel.

STARBUCK: Climate change is driving hotter temperatures, causing historic drought and fueling wildfires across the West.

GREG HEULE: In a wildland fire, as the heat goes up, it carries with it embers, little bits of burning material. And then it moves away as far as the wind will go.

STARBUCK: Greg Heule with the Plumas National Forest in California says fires are spreading especially quickly.

HEULE: If that ember is still alive and is still hot enough and it lands on something that will burn, such as grass or pine needles, it can ignite that stuff that's on the ground.

STARBUCK: California's fire season has grown longer and more intense. And it's already broken a grim milestone. So far, wildfires have scorched more than twice as much acreage as this time last year. Regardless of the danger, many people are committed to rebuilding after disasters. That's something Fire Chief Catron says is true for Doyle, even though the tree-covered mountains are now charred.

CATRON: They were really pretty. They'll never be the same in my lifetime. But, you know, they'll grow back, and it'll be beautiful again someday.

STARBUCK: That beauty is what draws so many people to these small rural places despite the risk of wildfire. For NPR News I'm Lucia Starbuck in Doyle, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "BRIDGES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucia Starbuck