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'There's nothing left to burn'

My World's on Fire
'There's nothing left to burn'
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #53 • View online
Thanks for reading my World’s on Fire, a weekly newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you found this dispatch interesting, I hope you’ll subscribe!

In Northern California, tucked between the Plumas National Forest and the Nevada border, there’s a small, rural town called Doyle that’s home to around 600 people. It was named after John Doyle, the area’s first postmaster, his great-great-granddaughter Kathy Catron told me by phone on Wednesday. I had asked her to describe what it’s like living there, and after offering me that bit of history, she was quick to praise her neighbors.
“We’re a very tight-knit small community,” she said. “We might have our issues, but when something happens, everybody pulls together.”
That “something” she was referring to was the reason Doyle was in the news this week. Over the weekend, the Beckwourth Complex Fire burned through the town. There are photos of it, incredible and dramatic ones, that have been widely shared by a number of outlets and speak to the power of the fire. But what I wanted to do today is go behind the images to hear more about the community, which is dealing with incredible loss for the second time in less than a year. 
Sparked by lightning strikes and fueled by high temperatures, dry vegetation, and gusty winds – conditions bearing the fingerprints of climate change – the Beckwourth Complex is the largest wildfire in California so far this year. In the time since I started this email, it’s surpassed 100,000 acres. Of course, size isn’t everything when talking about wildfires, and it’s important to note that the conditions have proved particularly challenging for firefighters, as well. 
In Doyle, there is no city water, meaning there are no fire hydrants. Catron, who is also the Chief of the volunteer-staffed Doyle Fire Protection District, said that meant they had to rely on a generator to pump well water to fight the fire. Her crew has just two engines and operates on a budget of around $30,000 a year. They used that generator until it died.
Of course, firefighters from other agencies did come in to help, but by the time the fire died down in Doyle, it had destroyed 33 homes. One of the impacted residents, Kelley Grosso, told a local television station he didn’t know where to start – that he was “still kind of numb.”
“I don’t know what to do with my disabled brother who just had heart surgery, or my other brother, my son, my dog, or my cat that’s in my RV,” Grosso said to KOLO News Now.
The Doyle Fire Protection District created a GoFundMe for those like Grosso who lost their homes in hopes of supporting their basic needs. Just things to help them “start to get back on their feet,” Catron said, adding, “It’s going to take a while.” 
Unfortunately, that’s something others in the town already know from experience. In November 2020, the Laura 2 wildfire destroyed more than a dozen homes in Doyle. Catron says most of those residents have yet to rebuild, citing in part Covid-19 challenges. The Los Angeles Times reported that many in the area are also not covered by insurance since the lack of city water makes it a high-risk zone.  
As we spoke, Catron warned that her service was spotty, with the town continuing to experience power outages. Still, she felt things were looking up for the moment, at least. The evacuation order had been lifted, meaning residents were starting to return to town after multiple days away. She’d also already had conversations about how to prevent this from happening again with state and federal officials. 
“But we’re okay for a while, because we have one heck of a firebreak,” Catron said. “There’s nothing left to burn.”
Note: I’ll be following the recovery efforts in Doyle, looking at how these compounding disasters continue to affect residents for months to come. If you have any questions you’re interested in me digging into or are interested in speaking with me for a future edition, you can reach me directly by replying to this email.
The Beckwourth Complex Fire (credit: CalFire/James Ruskin & Matt Caple)
The Beckwourth Complex Fire (credit: CalFire/James Ruskin & Matt Caple)
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