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Greenville rising from the ashes 2 years after Dixie Fire

Above the din of heavy machinery pouring in and out of the pockmarked landscape of what had once been the historic town of Greenville in Plumas County, Ken Donnell beamed at his nearly finished home cloaked in steel, and felt the sensation of home for the first time in two years.

“We lost one dream, now it’s time to make a new one,” Donnell had vowed in August of 2021 as he waded through the ashes of what had been his home and shop — among the casualties as the Dixie Fire tore through Greenville and incinerated most of downtown. 

But two years later, Donnell’s new home, built on the site of his previous home was a sign Donnell was making good on his promise, even though the majority of the town remained a long distant memory. All along Main Street, empty lots bore the footprints of century-old buildings that had once lined the street. The hollowed-out skeleton of the old city jail sat on a corner – a chewed away brick wall across the street was the last evidence of its structure. 

“I miss it so much,” Donnell said last week as he looked toward Main Street where his music store once stood, “and yet we can’t recreate that, that’s gone.” 

Where Main Street in downtown Greenville was once lined with historic century-old buildings, only vacant lots and a few newly built homes stand. (Aug. 10, 2023)

The town may be gone, but Donnell and some hardened residents who’ve remained in the area are pushing forward with a vision of rebuilding. Their fortitude is best summed up in The Spot, a pop-up downtown district made-up of food trucks and a giant greenhouse that serves as the community’s gathering space. 

The pop-up district is less than a block from where Kevin Goss’ pharmacy burned down, and where he and his girlfriend opened the Way Baby Way Station, a bar and restaurant that operates out of a trailer. The pharmacy owner became a bar owner. Since the fire, Goss, who also serves as a Plumas County Supervisor, has rallied for his community, traveling to Washington D.C. to urge lawmakers to enact laws giving tax breaks to fire victims. 

“I’m still here, you betcha,” said Goss, leaning over the counter of his restaurant. “I’m not going anywhere, this is where I want to be.” 

From Goss’ perch at the bar, he could see several new houses going up, and their families moving in. Before the fire, the town had a population of 1,200 people. A smattering of them have returned thus far. Greenville is now a blank canvas which residents hope to revive, in a fire-resistant kind of way. 

“There’s resilience — every day, every month, every week we gain more momentum,” Goss said. “Once you see another roof going on, once you see another wall going up it adds to that momentum.” 

Ken Donnell stands in front of his new steel-clad home in Greenville. (Aug. 10. 2023)

Donnell’s new house is emblematic of the change he and others hope to see the town adopt as it re-emerges. Donnell’s home is covered in 1/8 raw steel, with no air spaces, non combustible materials and constructed from cross-laminated timber – a thick prefabricated wood product that is fire resistant. 

The Sierra Institute for Community and Environment, located in Indian Valley where the Dixie Fire raged, has long advocated for cross-laminated timber design and created the blueprint for Donnell’s fire-resistant home. The group is urging builders to begin milling from the area’s mass of burned forests to produce the materials residents will need locally to rebuild. 

 “This is our version, if you will, hardened homes for a hardened community,” said Jonathan Kusel, executive director of the Sierra Institute for Community and Environment. “As opposed to just building back willy nilly.”  

Donnell offered a tour of his home; the sprawling wood ceiling and a sliding door opening to reveal a view of the mountain scape. The sightline included rows of blackened trees but also the greenery of new growth. Below his view sat Donnell’s planting boxes, the only things to survive the fire. 

“I’m never going to have to worry about a wildlife destroying my home again, this is so fire resilient,” Donnell said, staring out at the terrain. “I can sleep comfortably every night for the rest of my life.”

As residents of other burned parts of the state have learned, the rebuilding effort can run agonizingly slow. Red tape, insurance nightmares and the availability of labor and intention can erect many barriers for a quick return. The vision behind Greenville’s planned rebirth has impressed some post-fire experts who’ve used it as an example of how to come back. 

A brick wall is the only remains of the historic building standing on Main Street in fire-ravaged Greenville. (Aug. 10. 2023)

“They’re very creative, they’re very innovative,” said Jennifer Gray Thompson of the Bay Area fire response group After The Fire. “And then to see this amazing wildfire resistant, really climate resistant go up here, really the most impressive example I’ve seen in six years of doing this work.” 

Donnell said the community would need help from the outside world if it is to truly rebuild. He lamented the number of friends who’ve left town and area, likely to never return. But he has no doubts Greenville will re-emerge from the empty lots that line Main Street. It will take time, maybe a decade he predicted. 

The hills surrounding Greenville are still lined with the blackened carcasses of trees that ferried the flames into town. But in every direction, tractors were scoring land, PG&E trucks scuttled about and laborers were building houses. To Donnell, the scene spoke to the spirit of Greenville. 

“If you’re going to live in a place like this you have to be tough,” he said leaning against his steel covered house. “And these are the kind of people who are here.” 

Source: NBC Bay Area

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