Stand on her Back porch, and peeking through a gap in the trees, across a ravine, Liz Johnston can see a patch of red light. The night sky above glows an intense orange. A few kilometers away, a hill is on fire: massive flames sink a dense area of ââpines, firs and cedars.
It’s August 16, 2021 – in the middle of the California fire season. Johnston faces the Caldor Fire, which will burn 221,835 acres and initiate evacuations in the resort of South Lake Tahoe over the next two months. But here in rural El Dorado County, 40 miles east of Sacramento, she didn’t get an evacuation order.
Johnston’s house is on a hill in a forest that is both green and dry as a bone. Next to the deck are flower pots that she wants to arrange in a memorial garden for her mother, who died less than a month ago. The place doesn’t feel right without her mom. Now the exterior is also right.
Johnston pulls out her cell phone to trace the path of the fire. She checks Facebook, which is full of the chatter of other locals looking for information. She starts scrolling through Twitter. She sees tweets stating the fire is accessing the nearby town of Grizzly Flats and she panics. Heart racing, she storms into the house and packs up the few belongings that fit in her Toyota CR-V – photo albums, her father’s ashes, her mother’s old coat. She pushes her cat Chelsea and her dog Niner into the car, climbs into the driver’s seat, and leaves.
She escapes to a town called Diamond Springs a few miles away and lives with her boyfriend. That night, most of the Grizzly Flats burned to the ground. Officials blocked the streets in the area. Johnston is checking the official government maps showing the very edges of the flame, but they have not been updated in almost 24 hours. On the district sheriff’s Facebook page, she finds an evacuation card that now shows her house. She thinks of all the things that she doesn’t fit in her car. The big oak desk her mother loved to sit at. The pile of her clothes that Johnston wanted to make into a quilt. The brand new flowers for your memorial garden. Johnston plays a little Deer crossing to distract herself, but she can’t stop thinking about her house.
The American West burns year after year – millions of acres go up in flames, charged with a warming climate, densely packed forests and increasingly populated rural landscapes. When flames threaten, the people of Tierra del Fuego must make the colossal decision whether and when to leave their homes. State and local authorities can seem excruciatingly slow in delivering updates. If the forest can seem lonely on a good day, the silence on a fire day creates sheer fear.
“Everyone’s stuck trying to figure out what to do,” says Johnston. She spends the next few days taping on her phone, constantly re-searching for the hashtag #CaldorFire, wading through tweets about canceled Tahoe vacations, and ignoring the onlookers eyeing the extent of the fire.