Driving to Batha’s home in Quincy took me through the Plumas National Forest on an unseasonably warm February day. Along the curving road were reminders of why he decided to invite a few dozen strangers over for today’s event. Patches of burnt trees and scorched earth appeared off-and-on for miles, hinting at the devastation that wildfires have brought to the area in recent years. Last summer, Quincy became a refuge
for residents fleeing the Dixie Fire, which fanned out north of the town; the summer before, the Northern Complex Fire burned just below it. Some locals express a feeling of inevitability, a recognition that they’ve largely been lucky so far and that they might not be next time, at least not without some drastic action.
There’s a small sign on the road ahead of Batha’s property to alert people to the burn, both so they won’t call the authorities out of concern and in hopes of piquing outside interest in their activity. While the main goal of the day is to eliminate some of the built-up dry leaves and other debris on the land that would fuel a wildfire, the secondary goal is to raise awareness in this wooded community of the value and benefit of prescribed burning.
By the time Batha lays the test fire on the land, the group has split off into assigned teams. There’s an assortment of expertise in the group of about 40 people—a number have spent years as firefighters or in the Forest Service, while others have dedicated their lives to studying it, trying to understand how California’s unique beauty is in part borne from burning. There’s a group of students from a nearby college, members of the Plumas Fire Safe Council
, and volunteers with the Plumas Underburn Cooperative
For some, this is something they’ve done many times before, and they’ve come prepared not only with the necessities but also some extras—two people carry speakers with them, providing a classic rock soundtrack to the afternoon. Others are clearly new, their hesitancy apparent in their small, careful steps. Still, from afar, it all looks choreographed, a series of figures in bright yellow gear zigzagging across their assigned acres.