Survivors of Dixie Fire speak out on devastating losses as it becomes first blaze to cross the Sierra Nevada

After California’s massive Camp Fire blaze three years ago, Quail Lodge in Canyondam became a refuge for shell-shocked residents of Paradise, a town where 85 people were killed and most buildings reduced to ashes.

Now the lodge’s owners, John Crotty and Debbie Reynolds, along with hundreds of others, have been on the receiving end of support from the people of Paradise after the Dixie Fire claimed their home and business this past month. Some people have sought refuge in Paradise where local residents are gathering supplies and gift cards.

“The people from the Paradise fire have given help and information to everyone in the community because of their knowledge of what happened, and what they went through,” Ms Reynolds told The Independent.

The Dixie Fire is the second-largest in California’s history and holds the new, dismal record of the first blaze to cross the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

More than 7,000 people have been evacuated after flames swept across an area twice the size of Los Angeles. The fire has destroyed 1,000 structures in four counties about 175 miles north of San Francisco, including most of the Gold Rush-era town of Greenville and hamlet of Canyondam.

No fatalities have been reported however it’s possible that at least half a dozen people are still missing. After five weeks, and despite the best efforts of frontline fire crews, the fire is just 37 per cent contained.

The Dixie Fire is one of about a dozen massive wildfires currently burning in California.

Mr Crotty, 64, and Ms Reynolds 60, arrived in Canyondam seven years ago after falling in love with the 13-room lodge nestled in the forest, close to Lake Almanor.

The burnt remains of a home that was destroyed by the Dixie Fire on August 12, 2021 in Greenville, California (Getty Images)
The burnt remains of a home that was destroyed by the Dixie Fire on August 12, 2021 in Greenville, California (Getty Images)

“It was in dire need of repair,” Mr Crotty said. “We needed a new roof, new generator, and have been making improvements every year. We did everything we could make our business and the community better.”

A popular spot with outdoors lovers, the couple led fishing tours to trout lakes nearby and put their own stamp on the lodge.

“One thing that was very special to me is that we named every single room, had a local artisan make signs, and I decorated them accordingly,” Ms Reynolds said. “We tried to make every guest feel welcome.”

“It’s hard to talk about,” she added.

The Dixie Fire started on 13 July. Days later, the couple loaded some belongings and evacuated before being allowed to return as Quail Lodge was needed to house fire crews.

“We got a second notice to get out and that’s when things went haywire,” Mr Crotty said.

On 4th and 5th August, the Dixie Fire tore through Greenville and Canyondam, destroying Quail Lodge and all other structures.

Mr Crotty shared the news on Facebook with guests and friends. “The Dixie Fire can claim Quail Lodge as another of its victims, it will not dampen our spirits nor will it deter from the seven glorious years we had in Canyon Dam,” he wrote.

Hundreds responded, nearly every other person offering help and places to stay. “You two followed your dreams and poured your love and energy into Quail Lodge,” read one post.

“Your impact on the community over the last seven years has been tremendous,” said another.

The couple say they are numbed by the loss but grateful to have some practical belongings along with treasured possessions. Ms Reynolds grabbed a favourite blanket and the metal sign which welcomed visitors to the lodge.

“I had a hard time trying to figure out what to take, because I really didn’t think it was going to happen,” she said.

With much to figure out with insurers, they say it’s too soon to know whether they will rebuild. But that isn’t the couple’s leading concern.

“This isn’t just us,” Ms Reynolds said. “Our hearts go out to everybody that’s impacted.

“We look forward to doing something positive in the community, whether we end up staying or not. People are going to need help. John and I have energy, and since we don’t have the lodge, we have time.”

The Dixie Fire may have been ignited by equipment belonging to California utility provider, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), close to where Camp Fire originated.

PG&E were found responsible for the 2018 fire after failing to maintain a faulty electrical grid in the heavily forested area which is prone to high temperatures and strong winds.

The terror of wildfire leaves communities traumatised. Paradise has shrunk from a town of 26,000 to 6,000 people – in part because rebuilding efforts have been hampered by red tape, the pandemic, and expensive construction materials. But also because, for many, it has been impossible to return.

Steve “Woody” Culleton lost his home and his family barely escaped with their lives during the Camp Fire. Mr Culleton, who sits on the local council, told The Independent that while winds have so far driven this year’s wildfires away from Paradise, a tremendous amount of smoke has blanketed the town.

“For a lot of people still living here, it triggers PTSD,” he said. “In the last month that the Dixie Fire has been going, we wake up in the morning, and can’t see 20 yards away. It’s extremely unhealthy.

“The fire is not contained, so nobody trusts which way the wind is going to blow it. It elicits fear, those feelings of having to run for your life.”

Mr Culleton and many Camp Fire survivors live in a new level of preparedness, ready to go if the alarm sounds. “Keep the gas tank full, that’s probably the most important thing you can do,” he said.

The Camp Fire left an indelible mark on the consciousness of California and beyond, after harrowing images emerged of people trapped in traffic jams on narrow canyon roads amid a morning sky turned black as night and flames leaping on all sides.

Scenes of Paradise were on Bret Cook’s mind as he and wife Deborah, along with their two teenage sons, fled the Dixie Fire when fire agencies quickly ramped up to mandatory evacuation in Greenville.

Mr Cook, a lawyer originally from Fairbanks, Alaska, moved to northern California in 2003. He said the area has a “physical beauty that is just all around you”.

The fire is not contained, so nobody trusts which way the wind is going to blow it. It elicits fear, those feelings of having to run for your life.

Steve “Woody” Culleton, Paradise, California

Mr Cook had been working hard to ready his property for fire season, keeping a close watch on forecasts.

“We were seeing that communities were given a warning usually a day or two in advance,” he said.

“When [the Dixie Fire] hit, we went straight to mandatory evacuation and that was extremely hard on my wife. She had packed some heirlooms in the car in preparation but it was tough not to get everything you want from the house and have to leave quickly.

“But in light of Paradise, I wasn’t going to take any chances with my family.”

Mr Cook said the hardest thing for him has been his wife’s anguish. “I never heard that before and I hope to never hear it again,” he said.

Living on the frontlines of such major fires is the new reality in California, an increasing number of US states and other parts of the world.

This has been a summer of wildfires from California to Crete; the outskirts of Rome, and the Siberian tundra.

California has always burned. But since 1970, the scale of destruction has hugely accelerated. The amount of land covered by fires has increased fivefold while wildfire season stretches on for at least two additional months.

The larger, more intense fires are being fuelled by extreme heat and a mega-drought gripping the state. These conditions are linked to the climate crisis, caused largely by greenhouse gas emissions from decades of burning fossil fuels.

In California, average temperatures have risen 1C in the past century and the hottest years on record have been the past seven. All but three of California’s 20 largest recorded fires have occurred in the last 20 years.

But the climate crisis tells only part of the story and to really understand what has driven mammoth wildfires requires a look to the past. Indigenous people globally, including tribes in California, have for millennia used deliberate, controlled fires to regenerate land, prevent overgrowth, and support the lifecycles of species.

But for more than a century, the US government instead followed a path of fire suppression to protect timber supplies and communities. Federal policy ignored the vital role that “good” fire has played in North American forests for thousands of years. And so the forest floors became carpeted with vegetation, waiting for a spark.

Camp Fire was one of the first to reveal the deadly fruits of this policy. Mr Culleton said it was difficult for state agencies, “who did the best they could”, to really know where to begin with the amount of dead trees and vegetation left in the wake of the blaze.

He said, however, that it appears some lessons have been learned.

“In Paradise, we still have thousands of dead trees all over people’s properties and no funding to get rid of them,” he said.

“What [agencies] learned from Paradise is that when they clean up burned out houses and hazardous material, they also should take out all the dead trees.

“They’re learning how to be more responsive to wildfire destruction. Unfortunately, they didn’t know when they dealt with us so we’re left having to figure out how to complete the job.”

This weekend, two new large fires were reported in Colorado and Minnesota. Across the US, some 94 large fires and complexes have burned nearly 2.5million acres, the National Interagency Fire Center reported. Tens of thousands of people remain under evacuation orders and more than 25,000 firefighters are tackling the flames on the ground.

Katherine Sansone, from the Almanor Foundation in California told The Independent that within days of the Dixie Fire, the organisation has been able to get support to those in need along with fundraising to rebuild communities.

“We can and we will be back revitalized and stronger than ever,” she said.

The Cook family lost their home and Mr Cook’s law office in the Greenville blaze. He has since been able to return to survey the damage.

“The thing that stood out to me was a bunch of chimneys, and that it’s gray, dark and smoky,” he said.

What stuck out the most was that those he was used to seeing every day were gone, scattered to the wind.

“I wouldn’t go to John Hunter’s hardware store every day but I go often and always have a little bit of a conversation,” he said.

“I go get my mail. The kids come after school and hang at my office until mom can pick them up. That’s all gone.”

But he added: “The ranchers are still there and I think that gives a lot of hope to the valley.”

While his office may be gone, Mr Cook has recently began working in wildfire litigation on behalf of homeowners and renters.

“I want people to have a choice to stay in Greenville if they want to,” he said. “Or if they need to go start life somewhere else, then have the resources to do that.”

He added: “There’s a fighting spirit. There’s a sense to rebuild. We want the opportunity for the community to do that.”