All photos by Ken Etzel
The smoke was so thick I could barely see the emergency vehicles’ red-and-yellow lights through my front window as they crept through downtown Quincy, California, some 100 feet away. The temperature outside topped 102 degrees Fahrenheit, but without air-conditioning it felt even hotter in the house. I’d closed the windows weeks ago to keep out the smoke, and the air was heavy, as if all the oxygen had been used up.
It was August 17, 2021, and it had been 35 days since a tree fell across a power line in the remote Feather River Canyon and sparked a small blaze. That was July 13; by July 19, the rapidly expanding Dixie Fire was throwing up a 40,000-foot-tall plume of ash as it gobbled up tens of thousands of acres of forest. By the third week of August, the fire had consumed over 500,000 acres and showed no signs of slowing down.
Almost a year and a half into the pandemic, I was already feeling isolated. Now I was trapped and getting more claustrophobic by the moment, and all I could do was stay indoors, try to stay calm and remember to breathe.
I had planned to spend the summer outside in the mountains with fellow employees and the many volunteers of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship (SBTS). Based in Northern California’s Plumas County, the SBTS, which I founded in 2003, has spent the past two decades working to build sources of steady employment in a region once dependent on extractive industries like logging and mining. Using trails as the tool and working alongside local governments, communities and the US Forest Service (USFS), SBTS had managed to attract millions of state and federal grant dollars to revitalize these underserved mountain towns. We’d also built or maintained nearly 1,600 miles of singletrack in the process.
Now it was all burning.
When the USFS closed the Plumas National Forest to the public on July 16, it immediately halted all SBTS project work and cut off access to hundreds of thousands of grant dollars we depended upon to operate. Our staff went from 72 to 13 overnight. We were forced to lay off our entire trail crew, including 30 high-school students in our Youth Crew program. Over 200 miles of trail went up in smoke; there was nothing we could do.
The Dixie Fire was officially contained on October 26, after burning 963,309 acres and becoming the second-largest wildfire in California history. It destroyed over 1,300 buildings, and more than 12,000 people were forced to evacuate. The citizens of Greenville, Canyondam and Indian Falls returned to nothing but scorched ruins and ash.
But amid all that loss, the trails continued—and can continue—to give back. During the fire, they served as entry points for firefighters and, in some cases, as anchor points for back-burns. In its aftermath, the trails could be reimagined and rebuilt as permanent and sustained fire-control lines around communities, making the area more resilient to the next inevitable conflagration.
Most important, rebuilding trails is a way to heal physically, emotionally and financially. It can be a source of pride when you’ve lost everything—something to rally around, to invest energy into, to give people hope for a future in the mountains they call home.
By late summer, things around Quincy had cooled off enough for us to develop a safety plan and hold our first workdays on the Mount Hough trail system north of town. Hundreds of volunteers showed up, in an area with a total population of barely 4,000, and in late October 2021, Mount Hough reopened to the public.
We partied. We rode bikes. At that moment, it was a celebration just to breathe.