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Kent Porter: Capturing climate change on the front lines of the Dixie fire

Up ahead, the Dixie fire was ripping. The fire looked angry, menacing. Life altering.

The mountain to my left was fully ablaze, with flames as tall as 300 feet. Fire was launching up and across the steep slope of Keddie Ridge in Plumas County on the northern end of the Sierra Nevada.

All around me, it sounded like a giant ocean wave constantly crashing onto the beach. As fire spread to the top of the ridge, the blaze produced a rumbling, thunderous roar, shaking the ground with a guttural force as strong I’ve ever felt. A mass of superheated air collided aloft with cooler air to form a towering pyrocumulus cloud.

Adrenaline pumping, hands shaking, I started making pictures, capturing video and documenting my surroundings. Flames leaped sideways through the canopy of conifer trees, leaving a jumbled forest of blackened toothpicks. An entire ecosystem was being razed in a matter of minutes.

The dixie fire rips through the old Moonlight fire scar in Moonlight Valley, Monday, Aug. 9, 2021.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
The dixie fire rips through the old Moonlight fire scar in Moonlight Valley, Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

No one will believe this unless I have proof, I thought.

I’ve just passed my 34th year as a photojournalist with The Press Democrat. Every year I think fire season can’t get worse, and it does.

For me, the summer and fall of 2015 ushered in a more troubling tipping point. Lake County, where I grew up, came under siege from three wildfires, the worst being the Valley fire, which raced through bug-killed and parched forest atop Cobb Mountain before storming into Middletown, destroying more than 1,300 homes in all and killing four people.

That was my wake-up moment — a preview of the new era of catastrophic wildfire in California and across much of the West.

Ever since, I’ve felt a sense of responsibility to show how that threat is escalating amid the onslaught of climate change. The daily record is important, but I also feel compelled to help chronicle this for history, to show just how dominant a force wildfire has become in our lives.

It’s dangerous work at times, but I like the challenge of making pictures that are startling and strangely beautiful. The calling also makes me a witness to the terrible power of wildfire and its aftermath. In the 2017 firestorm, as we all remember, it took just seven hours to make city neighborhoods unrecognizable.

Along Highway 89 near the town of Canyon Dam, which was razed by the Dixie fire, a pair of bucks search for forage, Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Along Highway 89 near the town of Canyon Dam, which was razed by the Dixie fire, a pair of bucks search for forage, Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

The Dixie fire has set itself apart in new ways. It has burned since July 13 across four counties to cover more than 535,000 acres, or 835 square miles, making it the state’s largest-ever single wildfire.

Keeping my distance from its flames days ago, I was keenly aware of its force. The smoke column had leaned over, dropping fire brands on the ridge behind me, drawing heat from the opposite side into the main updraft. Within minutes, a counter clockwise rotating column of smoke appeared mid slope. A fire tornado. Relax, I told myself. Think clearly. Was that a tree that just uprooted and was flung into funnel? Yes.

Two U.S. Forest Service hot shot crews sped past, away from the fire, with a tree felling crew closely behind. Stopping, a man stepped out of his truck.

“Does anyone know about this?” he said.

“Well, we both do now!” I said.

He checked the bed of his pickup, where chainsaws were scattered about, a sign his crew had bugged out quickly.

“I want to make sure nothing is on fire,” he said above the din. “We drove through the edge of that mess!”

Two hundred yards up the road, trees were beginning to torch as the fire gained momentum. Time to leave.

The Tehachapi Valley 11 fire crew uses teamwork to refresh, rest and maintain equipment after cutting miles of fire break in the Rush Creek area of the Feather River Canyon, July 25, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
The Tehachapi Valley 11 fire crew uses teamwork to refresh, rest and maintain equipment after cutting miles of fire break in the Rush Creek area of the Feather River Canyon, July 25, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

When I was about 10 years old, the Aurora Marina in Lake County caught fire. My dad and I lived across the street and I remember trying to make a photo of the fire with a Polaroid Land camera. Nothing came out — it was 2 in the morning and I didn’t know squat about cameras or film speed. Firefighters fought the flames most of the night. I remember thinking how disappointed I was that I wasn’t able to make good images of the blaze. That pretty much sealed my career path, unknowingly, though I still harbored dreams of being a pro baseball player. Forty-nine years later, I’ve figured out cameras pretty well. I thought the same thing of covering wildfires until a few years ago.

But Northern California’s wildfires fires have grown more aggressive and dangerous for rural residents and urban dwellers alike. Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties offer one case study. The foothill and mountain towns of the Sierra Nevada are another.

With most of her personal possessions packed in the truck bed, Chester resident Regina Rutledge takes comfort in Allie and Sally Sue, Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. Chester residents were evacuated to Susanville after the Dixie fire threatened the town.  After firefighters forced the fire around Chester last week, the Dixie is again threatening to enter late Thursday, Aug. 12.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
With most of her personal possessions packed in the truck bed, Chester resident Regina Rutledge takes comfort in Allie and Sally Sue, Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. Chester residents were evacuated to Susanville after the Dixie fire threatened the town. After firefighters forced the fire around Chester last week, the Dixie is again threatening to enter late Thursday, Aug. 12. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

As I drove up to the Dixie fire last Saturday night, I was met with thick smoke at Yankee Hill on Highway 70. Through the entire Feather River Canyon, it was low to the road, blotting out all but the centerline markers — a 35 mph, 60-mile white-knuckle road trip into a hellscape.

Just above the Cresta Dam, I could see the blackened brush and outlines of torched trees. At the turnoff to Highway 89 leading to Lake Almanor stood a CHP checkpoint. California gives journalists wide latitude to document disasters and emergencies, so I was waved through.

The aftermath of wildfire isn’t new to me. I’ve documented ruins in the wake of many of the worst in California: the Valley, Tubbs, Nuns, Camp, Kincade, Glass, Walbridge, and August Complex fires. I was still overwhelmed by what I saw in Greenville, the Plumas County town of about 1,100 on the southeastern side of Lake Almanor. The Dixie fire burned through here with an inevitability and ferocity that haunts me.

Garth Foster, who fells trees for the Barry Mickleburgh Tree Company, of Grass Valley, covers his face from ash after felling a large sugar pine hazard tree in the Highway 89 corridor, Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021. "We cut out the hazards so firefighters stay safe during mop up" he says.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Garth Foster, who fells trees for the Barry Mickleburgh Tree Company, of Grass Valley, covers his face from ash after felling a large sugar pine hazard tree in the Highway 89 corridor, Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021. "We cut out the hazards so firefighters stay safe during mop up" he says. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

A smell of charred buildings and a pall of silence hung over the town. It looked like an earthquake zone. Buildings with brick facades had crumbled into streets and on to cars. Homes and businesses were reduced to ash. The asphalt had melted in front of some.

I drove north toward Lake Almanor and Chester on the Volcanic Scenic Legacy byway, where nuked conifers and smoldering ash lined the road for miles. It reminded me of the burned valley and mountain corridors that now stretch from Santa Rosa to Hopland in Mendocino County.

The behavior of blazes like this continues to shock and alarm even veteran fire officials, many of them California-grown like me and accustomed to the natural role flames have on our landscape.

Heat from the Dixie fire melted and cracked the Main Street sign in Greenville, Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Heat from the Dixie fire melted and cracked the Main Street sign in Greenville, Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

“The way we’ve seen this burn through live timber in the tens of thousands of acres an hour is unlike anything we’ve seen other than a few times,” Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter said on Wednesday. “And those few times, most of them have been within the last year or two years.”

On Sunday, I met Indian Valley resident Marsha Melton, an Indigenous Maidu Indian, who was watching helicopters make water drops on the blaze over a distant ridge. Just an air mile or so to the east from the wasteland in Greenville, the valley is lush and verdant, with expansive pastures, plentiful wildlife and picturesque barns.

Melton has lived in the valley her entire 50 plus years. “It’s heartbreaking. They should stop the fires immediately, not let them burn at all. They should let the cattle back in here, let us log.”

Lake Almanor reflects the Dixie fire, moderated by cooler temperatures, Sunday, Aug 8, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Lake Almanor reflects the Dixie fire, moderated by cooler temperatures, Sunday, Aug 8, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

It’s rare for me to come across people who cite climate change as an explicit culprit for wildfires. Like Melton, Paul Young, who lives near Round Valley Lake above Greenville, faulted forest management. A retired firefighter, he’s saved his home twice from flames, but his land has been scorched.

“The devastation down here in (Greenville) was just totally unbelievable. I think the forest management (has) been kind of held back about clearing debris on property, like they used to do years and years ago, used to have back burns all the time.” He adds “That’s been the problem of forest management and the political part about clearing ground around structures and place or throughout the forest itself.”

He paused taking in the leveled town. “My heart and soul goes out to people in this area, all my friends lost everything.”

More than 5,000 fire personnel are battling the Dixie fire, working 24-hour shifts to protect people and property. It is tough, sometimes harrowing work. I often position myself near those crews to capture the action. Other times, the flame fronts are too explosive and risky for crews to do much good.

Being there is dangerous and the photojournalists who commit to those shots have to be immersed and aware of fire behavior. We talk to each other and with firefighters but you also have to be your own boss, safety manager, meteorologist and fire watcher all in one.

And you can’t forget that you’re bearing witness to disasters that represent the worst days in the lives of many people or whole communities. I remind my colleagues of that over and over.

Kent Porter, senior photojournalist with the Press Democrat, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021 at the Dixie fire.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Kent Porter, senior photojournalist with the Press Democrat, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021 at the Dixie fire. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

On Monday evening, I sent a few photos back to the newsroom, but then a flank of the fire exploded and pushed into Indian Valley, hitting structures hard. Two strike teams with 10 engines and several bulldozers converged on the area. Flames were everywhere, high in the trees, racing through the grass, and tearing through buildings. I could hardly breathe. The smoke stung my eyes as I worked. Darkness and smoke made it hard to see the ground beneath my feet.

I photographed an engine crew from southern Marin County who engaged in a mobile attack of the fire as it spotted across the road in to fields. It was a good decision. Keeping the fire out of other structures, they were able to clear the way for more engines and hand crews to battle the fire further up the road. We shared broad smiles and fist bumps, and then the crew hauled off to their next destination.

They had saved two homes from burning down. I was there to make sure someone else knew about it.

Reach Staff Photojournalist Kent Porter at kent.porter@pressdemocrat.com.

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