Dawn at Jarbo Gap
For weeks, Captain Matt McKenzie had longed for rain. It would signal the end of wildfire season, which should have concluded by now, but November had brought only a parched wind. The jet stream was sluggish, failing to push rainclouds up and over the Sierra Nevada into Northern California. Since May 1, 2018, Butte County—150 miles northeast of San Francisco and 80 miles north of Sacramento—had received only 0.88 inches of precipitation. The low rainfall broke local records. It was now November 8, and with three weeks to go until Thanksgiving, the sky remained a stubborn, unbroken blue. Plants withered and died, their precious moisture sucked into the atmosphere. Oak and madrone shook off their brittle leaves.
Ponderosa pine needles fell like the raindrops that refused to come, pinging against the fire station’s tin roof and waking McKenzie from a deep sleep around 5:30 a.m. A pinecone landed with a thud. He curled up on the twin bed in his station bedroom, feet poking from under the thin comforter, and oriented himself in the darkness. He didn’t feel ready for the day to begin. Blackness edged the only window. Outside, gale force winds wailed through the hallway. He pulled aside the window blinds for confirmation: no rain. The sliver of a waxing moon and winking stars pricked the sky’s endless dark. In an hour, the sun would rise.
After more than two decades of firefighting, McKenzie, forty-two, possessed a certain clairvoyance. He had dedicated half his life to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, helping to battle conflagrations that sprouted in the vastness of California during its fire season. In such a huge state, urban departments could cover only so much ground; there had to be a larger force to stop fires before they burned too far or too fast in the wilderness bordering cities and towns. Known as Cal Fire, the state agency was one of the largest dedicated wildland firefighting forces in the world.
McKenzie had learned to read the agency’s weather reports like tea leaves. When conditions were right, all it took was a spark to ignite an inferno. McKenzie and his crew were trained to anticipate and react aggressively, jumping into action while the fires were still small and easily contained. Nothing was left to chance. They did this the old-fashioned way, by digging dirt firebreaks and spraying water from their engines. The method was effective: Only 2 to 3 percent of the wildfires they tackled ever escaped their control. But fires broke out all over California every year, and members of his outpost, Station 36, were called upon to help quench the most destructive ones as part of the state’s mutual aid agreement, by which jurisdictions pledged to help each other out during emergencies. The crew spent the year crisscrossing the state, from barren Siskiyou to coastal San Diego.
Innocuous mishaps—a golf club or lawn mower striking a rock, a malfunctioning electric livestock fence, a trailer dragging against the asphalt, a catalytic converter spewing hot carbon—could beget a blaze. More often, though, fires were started by downed electrical lines. They would snap and spark in high winds, showering embers and grief across entire communities. Lately, the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, the largest power provider in California, was experimenting with shutting off power when high fire risk was forecast.
In a remotely operated weather site near McKenzie’s fire station, an anemometer was whirring, generating the next forecast. Surrounded by chain-link fencing, the instrument thrummed atop a slender tripod 20 feet tall, its three cupped hands circling faster and faster. It registered winds blowing at 32 mph, with gusts up to 52 mph. That November morning, wind wasn’t the only problem. Relative humidity plummeted to 23 percent and continued dropping. By noon, it was forecast to hit 5 percent—drier than the Sahara Desert.
McKenzie ran a hand through his silvered hair and swung his feet to the tile floor, trudging to the bathroom with a towel slung over one arm. Standing six foot one, he was tall and slim, with deep dimples and piercing blue-gray eyes. He had led Station 36 for four years and treasured its cowboy grit and strong camaraderie with the community, mostly retirees, loggers, off-the-gridders, and marijuana growers. McKenzie was now in the middle of a seventy-two-hour shift overseeing the station, one of the oldest and most fire-prone posts in Butte County. Covering 1,636 square miles in far Northern California, the county was nearer to the Oregon border than to Los Angeles, its small valley cities and hideaway mountain towns scattered along the leeward side of the Sierra Nevada. In the past twenty-five years, flames had ravaged the foothills 103 times. The worst of them—the Poe Fire, in 2001, and the Butte Lightning Complex and Humboldt fires, both in 2008—had devastated the county’s rural communities, including those near McKenzie’s station.
His outpost was perched on a knob of land off State Highway 70, the last stop before motorists entered U.S. Forest Service jurisdiction. At an elevation of 2,200 feet, the station overlooked the Feather River Canyon and abutted the western edge of Plumas National Forest. McKenzie joked that it was built on “the road to nowhere.” A long driveway unspooled to a compound of squat tan buildings: a large garage for the fire engines, an office, and a twelve-bed barracks. Two captains—he was one of them—had rotating shifts and shared a private bedroom behind the kitchen. Everyone else slept in the dorm. At least six firefighters stayed on duty at all times, tasked with putting out house fires and responding to vehicle accidents or medical emergencies.
The men at Station 36 spent a lot of time together, much of it trying to impress McKenzie, whom they admired. They competed to hike the fastest or do the most push-ups, growing close through the friendly rivalry. On slow afternoons, they would pull weeds from the station’s vegetable garden, tend its fruit trees, and play elaborate games of darts in the garage, storing their personalized game pieces in metal lockers labeled with tape. They would jam the living room armchairs against the wall and crank up the heater for floor exercises, sweating so profusely that the photos on the wall curled in their frames.
When they had a break, sometimes McKenzie and his crew would head to Scooters Café, a family-owned restaurant that—other than a hardware store, a stone lodge turned into a diner, and a market with two gas pumps—was the nearest business around. Motorcyclists choked its parking lot, waiting in a long line for Fatboy burgers—named after the Harley-Davidson motorcycle—or $2.00 beef tacos on Tuesdays. The owner of the red-walled café was a mild-mannered man who never called 911 or allowed his patrons to drive drunk. He served beer and “Scooteritas,” but no wine, and he often dropped glazed doughnuts off for the firefighters. Sometimes he scheduled karaoke nights, hosted car shows, or booked concerts. McKenzie and his crew would sit on the station lawn and listen, the music echoing uphill in the summer air.
Station 36 was a quiet place, its stillness punctuated by the occasional grumble of highway traffic and the whoosh of wind. As one week in November turned to another, still with no rain, the crew hiked to a long-ago-burned home, its gardens lush with unkempt fig trees and wild blackberry thickets, and foraged for fruit to bake a cobbler. They responded to accidents at Sandy Beach, where swimmers like to launch themselves into the Feather River with a rope swing and sometimes get stuck in the currents. They scanned the canyon for smoke.
The Feather River Canyon had a long history of wind-driven wildfires. Station 36 existed in part because of its proximity to this yawning crack in the earth. The sixty-mile chasm snaked across Butte County, from Lassen National Forest to Lake Oroville; it trapped seasonal winds as they spun clockwise over the Sierra Nevada and pushed them toward the low-pressure coast. The winds blew day and night, billowing up the canyon walls as sunshine warmed the air and down as temperatures cooled, clocking speeds upwards of 100 mph and blasting the towns of Magalia, Concow, and Paradise. They pelted homes and windshields with pine needles like obnoxious confetti. When there was a fire, the Feather River Canyon also funneled smoke south, directly to the hallway outside McKenzie’s bedroom. The scent was always a swirling, ghostly harbinger of terrible things to come.