Dixie Fire: A Native American Community Protects Its Land

The Dixie Fire has torn through the sprawling Sierra Nevada, where the Maidu have lived for thousands of years.,

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‘I would want to die right here’: A Native American community fights to protect its land from the Dixie Fire.

Mike Savala, left, and Danny Manning, who are firefighters and members of the local Maidu Native American community, assessed the damage from the Dixie Fire in Greenville, Calif., on Sunday.
Mike Savala, left, and Danny Manning, who are firefighters and members of the local Maidu Native American community, assessed the damage from the Dixie Fire in Greenville, Calif., on Sunday.Credit…Christian Monterrosa for The New York Times
  • Aug. 10, 2021Updated 5:01 p.m. ET

GREENVILLE, Calif. — For 20 years, Danny Manning has worked to protect his community as a firefighter, becoming all too familiar with scenes of destruction. But this past weekend, he was forced to confront a different kind of loss as he walked among the rubble of his destroyed fire house in Greenville.

“This was our crew rig, this is our brand-new engine,” said Mr. Manning, 41, who is a member of the local Native American Maidu community, and its assistant fire chief. On Wednesday, when the Dixie Fire tore through the tiny mountain town 160 miles north of Sacramento, he and his fire engine crew were on a mandatory rest day after a grueling two-week shift fighting the historic blaze.

Then, two of the crew’s engines, station and office burned down.

On Sunday, Mr. Manning, who leads a fire crew of 12 people, most of them Maidu, had returned to Greenville to assess the damage. “I can’t believe this,” he added, glass and debris crunching beneath his boots. “It hurts.”

About a decade ago, Mr. Manning had helped establish the firefighting crew with little more than an old truck and resolve. Firefighting is among the few options for steady employment in the sparsely populated Gold Rush region. Mr. Manning said it is also part of a broader effort to protect and conserve the remote, mountainous region — much of it sacred to the Maidu.

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Monte Kawahara inspected the remnants of a fire truck in Greenville.Credit…Christian Monterrosa for The New York Times

By Tuesday, the Dixie Fire had torn through 487,764 acres in the sprawling Sierra Nevada, where the Maidu have lived for thousands of years.

“This is our land,” said Trina Cunningham, the executive director of the Maidu Summit Consortium, a nonprofit group that works to reclaim and conserve ancestral Indigenous lands in Northern California. Ms. Cunningham has also been working with fire authorities to map and avoid damaging burial, prayer and cultural gathering sites from both the Dixie Fire and the machines used to battle it.

“Our hearts were breaking when it burned through Tasmam Koyom,” Ms. Cunningham said, referring to the moment the blaze tore through a sacred site, also known as Humbug Valley, near Lake Almanor, which is about 20 miles northwest of Greenville.

In 2019, she added, the consortium had finally reclaimed that land from the utility company Pacific Gas & Electric. PG&E is under scrutiny for the role its equipment may have played in igniting the Dixie Fire.

The fire has not just damaged sacred sites, however, but also the homes and businesses of several community members.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” said Mike Savala, another Maidu member of the fire crew, as he walked through the wreckage of the town together with Mr. Manning, the assistant fire chief. His own home remained standing on a street where several other homes could be seen collapsed into piles of metal, bricks and ash.

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Mr. Savala poured water for his cats, which were missing after the Dixie Fire destroyed his neighborhood.Credit…Christian Monterrosa for The New York Times
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A door was about all that was left standing after the Greenville Rancheria Fire office was burned by the fire.Credit…Christian Monterrosa for The New York Times

Some members of the community have refused to evacuate, remaining in the dense forest as the fire rolled down the mountainside, bringing with it plumes of thick, hazardous, smoke.

“I’m ready,” said Reggie Merino, a Maidu elder who lives on a sprawling property in Goat Canyon, about 10 miles east of Greenville.

Mr. Manning and Mr. Sevala — who in the absence of their fire truck are instead delivering food, water and supplies — had come to visit Mr. Merino, and to attempt to convince him to evacuate. Mr. Merino refused.

At their next stop, Shiwaya Peck, an elder and basket weaver, said that though she was terrified for herself and her sister, who lives with her and suffers from seizures, she couldn’t fathom leaving her ancestral land behind.

“I’ve been a nervous wreck just thinking what’s going to happen,” Ms. Peck said, standing in the haze among her grandfather’s towering fir and cedar trees.

“If I were to die, I would want to die right here,” she added. “On my homeland.”

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