Many Greenville residents struggled to get fire insurance. Then the Dixie Fire came

For over two months straight this summer, the Dixie Fire ravaged Northern California, burning nearly one million acres before firefighters were able to put out the flames. One small historic town was nearly destroyed in its wake. Special correspondent Cat Wise traveled to Greenville, in Plumas County, for a closer look at what remains after the Dixie Fire.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For more than two months straight this summer, the Dixie wildfire ravaged Northern California. It burned close to one million acres before firefighters were able to put out the flames.

    And one small historic town was nearly destroyed in its wake.

    Special correspondent Cat Wise traveled to Greenville in Plumas County for a closer look at what remains after the Dixie Fire.

  • Pam Courtright, Fire Victim:

    I really wanted to see what was in here.

  • Cat Wise:

    In the ash-strewn lot where her home once stood, Pam Courtright finds a precious talisman.

  • Pam Courtright:

    Oh, lookit. It survived.

  • Cat Wise:

    Every charred possession she uncovers from the debris tells a story.

  • Pam Courtright:

    That's funny. I see a beer stein from Germany. Lookit.

  • Cat Wise:

    The home where their family made a lifetime of memories is just one of so many that was leveled in a matter of minutes by the ferocious Dixie Fire, the second largest in California's history.

    The fire destroyed about three-quarters of all of the buildings in the small mountain town of Greenville.

  • Pam Courtright:

    You can't even tell. I had a little pond out here.

  • Cat Wise:

    Courtright remembers rushing home from her office just before the fire reached her doorstep on August 4.

  • Pam Courtright:

    I literally packed up my stuff and said, I'm leaving. My house is going to burn down. Even though we didn't think it would happen, we were ready, so, yes.

    So, we left out of town, and it was pretty much on both sides of the highway.

  • Chad Hermann, Plumas County, California, Undersheriff:

    The hillside ahead of us was basically 100 feet flames coming down.

  • Cat Wise:

    Chad Hermann is the undersheriff of Plumas County, which includes Greenville.

  • Chad Hermann:

    There were spot fires occurring everywhere, and it just incinerated the town in a matter of 30 minutes.

  • Cat Wise:

    Nearly all of the town's residents evacuated, and no lives were lost, but this is the scene they came back to.

  • Chad Hermann:

    I went through roughly at 7:00 at night, and it was extremely smoky. There were still active fire burning, but it was devastating, knowing what this town used to be.

  • Robert Dechsler, Fire Victim:

    Oh, there's the bed.

  • Cat Wise:

    Robert Deschler and his wife, Michelle, were returning to take in the destruction for the first time.

  • Robert Dechsler:

    Oh, honey.

  • Cat Wise:

    The loss was overwhelming.

  • Michelle Dechsler, Fire Victim:

    We have been coming up here 40 years.

  • Robert Dechsler:

    Yes, we have been coming up here for 40 years.

  • Cat Wise:

    It's not the first home they have lost to fire.

  • Robert Dechsler:

    In 2017, we lost our home in Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa. So, that was pretty devastating.

    We moved to Skyhawk. And a year, I think there was like 15 homes that burnt 300 feet from us. So we almost lost that house. This is going to choke me up a little bit. So…

  • Cat Wise:

    Greenville was a tight-knit community before the fire. Residents took pride in the many historic buildings here that dated back to the gold rush era. Now those buildings are gone. And residents are scattered around the area, staying with friends and family and in R.V.s as winter approaches.

  • At 9:

    30 in the morning, Kevin Goss would normally be opening the local pharmacy that stood in the center of town.

    Kevin Goss, Plumas County, California, Board of Supervisors: This building, the Village Drug, was the oldest building in town, or at least one of them, and the way station across the street — 1800s gold rush town. It's got a lot of history.

    We did, unfortunately, lose a lot of history. And we're going to try and save everything that we possibly can.

  • Cat Wise:

    As the fire tore down this hillside toward Greenville, Goss rushed in to save the pharmacy's computer and the health records of all his patients.

  • Kevin Goss:

    We bought that in 1988, a family-owned business, and it really was — it was heartbreaking, truly heartbreaking.

  • Cat Wise:

    The town's Main Street stands silent and largely deserted, save for inspection and cleanup crews. But, even now, Goss is greeted warmly by the few who remain.

  • Kevin Goss:

    Yes, the pharmacy is near and dear to me, but this whole community is near and dear to me, and that's what really broke me, not just this. It's the whole thing as a whole, everything as a whole, all the people that came into the drugstore over the years, all the people that I knew.

  • Cat Wise:

    Goss also serves on the Plumas County Board of Supervisors. He says many in this working-class community didn't have the safety net of insurance. And even families that did, like Pam and Andy Courtright, are worried about the future.

  • Pam Courtright:

    And I will guarantee you. We had really good insurance before. We won't. We won't next time more than likely. Nobody in this community will have good insurance. We will have to do the California FAIR Plan.

    So — and I don't know how exactly it works, but it's very difficult to pay that bill.

  • Cat Wise:

    The state of California has issued a moratorium that will prevent insurers from dropping homeowners in wildfire-scorched areas over the next year. And the California FAIR Plan is supposed to ensure that all homeowners, including high-risk ones, have some basic fire insurance. But barriers remain.

  • Kevin Goss:

    Insurance is always a problem, homeowners insurance. And some of these folks could not afford the higher rates that these insurance companies are having to charge to insure these homes.

  • Cat Wise:

    It's only the beginning of a long process of cleaning up, but Kevin Goss says that, so far, they have gotten the help they need because this small town sits at a crucial waterway.

  • Kevin Goss:

    They are actually moving at a pace that is urgent, as we are the headwaters to the Feather River that feeds Oroville, which is one of the main water sources for the state of California.

    So, this debris, they do not want to go into that water system.

  • Cat Wise:

    These green wattles are supposed to keep that debris from contaminating the water system.

    Still, Chad Hermann says the aftermath of a wildfire in a rural community like Greenville is a far different picture than when fire strikes wealthier California enclaves

  • Chad Hermann:

    When you look at the fires that they had down in Sonoma, you have an infrastructure with a fantastic money base, between the wineries and industry. In the real mountain communities, you don't have that.

    We're not a rich county. So, when you have a group of people who have very little to begin with, and they lose everything, it makes it very difficult to come back from that. And we still have people without adequate housing. So we have people that are still in tents and travel trailers.

  • Cat Wise:

    Kevin Goss is hopeful that the town he's known all his life will rise again with better fire-wise planning and more resilient construction materials to prevent the town from burning again.

  • Kevin Goss:

    Some folks, the trauma is going to be too much for them to come back. And it's just — it's permanently seared in their brain and they don't want to go through that again. Folks like myself and others are going to say, hey, you know what? We're going to build this thing back to where it can survive a fire like this.

    Most folks want to come back to their home. I mean, even though it looks like this, it's still their home. It's their piece of property. It's their — where they grew up or where they have had all these memories.

  • Cat Wise:

    Pam and Andy Courtright don't know what they will do next. For now, they're living in an R.V. on a friend's property. And the memories of the home they lost feel more real than a future without it.

  • Pam Courtright:

    I literally walk through my house inch by inch. Even when I lay down at night, every square inch, I walk through. I walk through.

  • Cat Wise:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Greenville, California.

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