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Q&A: ‘Heartbreaking’: School Starts In Less Than A Week In Plumas County, Many Families Who Lost Homes In The Dixie Fire Have Nowhere To Go

Noah Berger
AP Photo
Firefighter Jason Prado monitors flames as his crew burns vegetation to stop the Dixie Fire from spreading near Prattville in Plumas County, California, U.S., July 23, 2021.

The Dixie Fire has been burning for more than a month and thousands of people are still dealing with the impacts. Many towns that were threatened by the fire have been repopulated. But those going home are often returning to refrigerators filled with spoiled food, frequent power outages, and smoke-filled landscapes that officials say could last for weeks, if not months.

At the same time, those who lost their homes in Greenville were recently escorted to see what the fire left behind and are now dealing with the hardships that life after the fire brings.

Many who have lost homes are now staying in Quincy. NSPR’s Sarah Bohannon recently spoke with Wendi James, Homeless and Youth Services Liaison for the Plumas County Office of Education and Plumas Unified School District.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

On the living conditions many evacuees are experiencing

There are so many families camping. My husband and I went for a drive and we were driving down the highway and you could see cars out in the woods. People are living out of their cars off the side of the road. Actually, a worker at Safeway told me that a lot of the employees … that lived in Greenville are in their trailers in the parking lot of Safeway, and they call it the refugee camp. So like, they're just spread out everywhere. There are the lucky ones that were able to get hotel vouchers, and the crisis center is paying for some of them to get hotel rooms for the week, but it doesn't last. A lot of people have left the area as well. And they're enrolling their children in other counties and other schools. So there's not much left here.

On whether or not people who lost homes in the fire will return 

That I can't answer. I know that, when I was at the Local Assistance Center, my table, I sat right next to the building department. And I would hear him ask the same question to each person that would stop by. And he would ask them if they were going to rebuild. And the majority of the people either said “no” or they had “no idea”. I barely heard a “yes.” And there were a lot of people that lost their home in the Camp Fire and they moved to Greenville and lost their home there. So you know, it wouldn't surprise me if they were out of here.

APTOPIX California Wildfires
Noah Berger
AP Photo
Homes and cars destroyed by the Dixie Fire line central Greenville on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, in Plumas County, Calif.

On how residents are navigating frequent power outages in addition to the fire 

It’s kind of nerve-racking because everything that they're putting out to us, all the news, it's all on social media. So it's not like you can just turn the radio on and listen to what's happening. Everything is online. If you don't have power, you can't listen to any of that. And so it's kind of scary having to rely on technology and social media to get your news.

It's challenging living in a rural area. But you know, we do our best. I think we're getting better at it. But with all of this happening, Quincy is so full of people. Just people parked on the sides of the road with all their stuff in their car. It's just, that's heartbreaking, seeing it up close.

On whether people will have a stable living situation by the time school starts on Sept 7 

I think it's going to be similar. Because right now, I think where we could have put people would be at the fairgrounds. And that's the center for the firefighters. That's the incident center. I mean, there are tents everywhere. I'm really not quite sure what's going to happen until the fire is out. Maybe we can get some help from FEMA. Maybe. I don't even know that. (I don’t know) what's happening with FEMA. I don't know any of that information. I know that we've declared a state of emergency, but I don't really know what that entails for us at the moment.

California Wildfires
Noah Berger
AP Photo
Operations Chief Jay Walter passes the Sierra Lodge as the Dixie Fire burns through Greenville.

On the current plan for Greenville students

At this point in time, they're offering the other school sites within Plumas County for these students. So they can go to Quincy, Chester or Portola.

On the added difficulty for students due to the pandemic

It's been really hard. I think now with the vaccine, I think a lot of the teachers and parents feel a little bit more protected and are allowing their kids to go to school. The mask mandate is back, so I know that the students aren't excited about that, but that's what we have to do to protect each other. And the numbers here keep going up.

On the best way people can help fire survivors

We've had so much help. So many people wanting to donate and help us, it's been overwhelming. I think that the best way to do it would be to reach out to the district office if they wanted to go that route, or reach out to the resource center. Also, Plumas Rural Services has a GoFundMe that they could donate to as well.

As far as stuff, we don't really have anywhere to store anything right now because everything that we would be able to store, you know, we got firefighters everywhere and they're staying in places where we would be able to store stuff, there's just not really that much room. The resource center is overwhelmed. I think that somebody donated some big trucks for them to be able to store stuff in. And also these people don't have anywhere to live. So they're either camping, or they're at the evacuation center. And so I feel like if somebody does want to help, they can send us gift cards for them to be able to purchase things they need right now. Or they can purchase it later once they find somewhere to live. That's kind of what we're experiencing right now, is we have all this stuff but we have nowhere for these people to put it. We appreciate it very much and we want to be able to give it to everyone, but I don't know that they really have anywhere to store it.