Another Town Is Leveled by Flames

Friday: The Dixie fire tore through the Northern California community of Greenville. Plus, interviews with firefighters battling the blaze.,


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Smoldering buildings were left in the wake of the Dixie Fire after it ripped through downtown Greenville, Calif.Credit…Josh Edelson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The words were a stark reminder of just how brutal wildfires in California have become in recent years.

“We lost Greenville tonight.”

Representative Doug LaMalfa was bemoaning how the small Plumas County town he represents in Congress fell victim to the Dixie fire, now the sixth-largest blaze in California history. Historic buildings burned down, dozens of homes were destroyed and stretches of Greenville were left unrecognizable, my colleagues report.

The fire’s expansive growth has sadly become commonplace. Of the 10 largest wildfires ever recorded in California, six were within the past 12 months.

“They’re just spreading so fast and so hot. Sometimes we feel like we’re on our heels trying to play catch-up,” Chris Aragon, a captain with Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency, told me. “It’s not the same behavior as the fires we were used to a decade or more ago.”

Longer fire seasons and more destructive blazes have changed life not just for families worried about their safety, but also for people like Aragon who are responsible for controlling fires.

While most of us flee from flames, the approximately 7,500 firefighters at Cal Fire run toward them, sometimes inhaling smoky air, collapsing from dehydration and working 96 hours straight.


The Greenville Library was reduced to ash by the Dixie fire.Credit…Josh Edelson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

How fires have changed

When Aragon, 36, worked as a seasonal firefighter more than a decade ago, most fires broke out between July and September, he said. The season was long if it ran through Halloween.

But the Camp fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018, began in November. And the year before, Aragon traveled to Ventura County to work on the Thomas fire, which erupted in December.

“We all wondered if we were going to make it home for Christmas,” he said.


Chris Aragon, a captain with Cal Fire, has been fighting the Dixie fire.Credit…Nic Coury for The New York Times

Aragon has recently been assigned on the Dixie fire, one of about a dozen currently burning in California. The River fire, which broke out on Wednesday about 40 miles northeast of Sacramento, is uncontained and has already burned 2,400 acres, forcing thousands of evacuations.

Mike Conaty, a Cal Fire captain with the Butte Unit, said the fires his mentors told him about — the wild, once-in-a-lifetime blazes — now happen regularly.

“The last five years of my career, we’ve just blown fires like that out of the water,” Conaty told me.

There’s too much dry, dense vegetation. And the wind in recent fires has blown as fast as 100 miles per hour, “so you couldn’t drive as fast as the fire was spreading,” Aragon said.

“It sounds like a freight train is coming through, and you can’t hear anything,” he said, adding that the flames can grow so tall they block out the sun.

“In the middle of the day, it looks like it’s nighttime.”

Coughing and collapsing

The labor required to stop a fire’s path can be grueling. The firefighters alternate 24-hour shifts, typically sleeping in hotel rooms near the blaze instead of returning home.

Conaty once collapsed from dehydration after working. Aragon said he had gone 24 hours without eating, consumed with clearing brush and spraying water.

The men have grown accustomed to discomfort. The flames are often feet, if not inches, away and can feel unbearably hot. The smell of smoke lingers on their skin for days.

Firefighters wear helmets but not fitted masks, which would impede their breathing and slow them down, Aragon said. So instead they inhale smoke.

“On my first season I was coughing up black stuff for a week or so,” he said.

‘A strain on the family’

Conaty returned home last week from an 11-day stint on the Dixie fire.

He said that while his 9-year-old son was excited to see him, his 11-year-old gave him an attitude, the coping mechanism he has developed for dealing with his father being away.

“You’re kind of burning the candle at both ends most of the time,” Conaty said. “You can be as prepared as you want and as used to it as you think you are, and it’s still a strain on the family.”

Last year, during a different wildfire, Conaty was away from his wife and children for 23 days straight, able to see them only via FaceTime. As fires grow more destructive and the fire season extends further into the year, the firefighters’ schedules become less predictable.

On July 25 this year, Conaty turned 46. He couldn’t see his family because he was working on a fire, for the second year in a row.

For more:

Read my colleagues’ in-depth reporting on the Greenville fire.

Check out The Times’s map of wildfires in the west.

The rest of the news


Darryl Hana, a registered nurse, administering a coronavirus vaccine in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles.Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images


Vaccination uptick: The number of people getting vaccinated against Covid-19 across the state has grown substantially, with 41 percent more people receiving their shots last week compared with two weeks before, The Los Angeles Times reports.

Whales and ships: As the use of cargo ships rises, the deaths of whales are also increasing. The Los Angeles Times looks at the link between the two.

Recycling bill: State Senator Ben Allen has introduced a bill to clarify which plastics are actually recyclable to consumers statewide, according to CalMatters. Apparently, it’s not all of them.


Vaccine mandate debate: The Los Angeles Times reports on a motion, introduced on Wednesday by the City Council president, Nury Martinez, and Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, that would require proof of Covid-19 vaccination to enter many indoor public spaces in Los Angeles.

Health care vaccine requirement: A new mandate calls for all California health care workers to be fully vaccinated by the end of September, according to The Los Angeles Times. Any visitors to hospitals or nursing homes must also show proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test result.

Tents in Los Angeles: The Los Angeles City Council, as well as the city’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, signed an ordinance last week banning camping around facilities including parks and libraries, The Los Angeles Times reports. The rule is expected to go into effect next month.



Lake Oroville’s historically low water level has caused the Edward Hyatt hydroelectric power plant to be taken offline.Credit…Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Lake Oroville: The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Lake Oroville, one of California’s largest reservoirs, hit a record-low elevation point this week.

School vaccination requirements: The San Francisco public school district will not mandate that teachers and staff members be vaccinated against the coronavirus before returning to classes, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.

Unvaccinated city workers: According to The San Francisco Chronicle, at least 2,700 San Francisco city employees in the Police Department, Municipal Transportation Agency and Department of Public Health have not been vaccinated.


Credit…Linda Xiao for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Monica Pierini.

What we’re eating

Indian butter tofu, a riff on butter chicken, is creamy and delicious.

What we’re recommending

I’m reading Aubrey Gordon’s new book, “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat,” a smart dive into our culture’s harmful obsession with thinness.

I picked up Gordon’s book after listening to “Maintenance Phase,” a podcast she co-hosts that debunks diet culture. This week’s episode on body mass index was especially fascinating.

Where we’re traveling

Today’s California travel tip comes from Ryan Mesheau, a reader who lives in Sonoma. Ryan writes:

Whenever we take visitors to San Francisco, I always get them to poke their heads into the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, hidden down Ross Alley between Jackson and Washington streets in Chinatown. You can just peek in, and see a couple of women making cookies by hand. Someone hands out samples of still warm, crispy and perfectly sweet cookies.

Tell us about the best spots to visit in California. Email your suggestions to We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back Monday. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Game often played while holding a beer (5 letters).

Steven Moity and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at

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