Michael “Cowboy” Cowen and his wife, Shannon, do their laundry in an outdoor washing machine. They take shelter in the shade of makeshift awnings and live in a 35-foot travel trailer with their toddler son Justice.
The family is surrounded by a landscape of blackened trees and scorched earth that used to be their lushly wooded homestead on a hillside above the Jesus Maria Creek, near the rural community of Mountain Ranch.
The Butte Fire that blasted through the foothills of Calaveras County last year reduced their home and all their possessions to ash. The towering oaks and pines that once shaded them will take generations to regrow.
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“I can’t ever imagine being cool here again,” Michael Cowen said as he paced his property last week. His deeply tanned face was lined with anguish.
Summer starts Monday, and the state faces another fire season. Many worry it could be a repeat of last year, when massive wildfires tore through populated areas and ravaged landscapes parched by years of drought.
The Butte Fire was among the worst. It spread to nearly 71,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties, killed two people and burned 475 homes during three weeks last September. It was the seventh most destructive wildfire in state history in terms of structures destroyed.
The Valley Fire, in Lake County, was the third most destructive. Witnesses described towering flames that swirled like tornadoes and moved at the speed of racehorses. The fire claimed 1,300 homes, burned 76,000 acres and killed four people over a few days last fall.
Both fires left residents huddled in tents and small trailers, wearing donated clothes and desperate for aid and supplies. Many are still trying to reclaim their lives as another fire season begins.
I can’t ever imagine being cool here again.
Michael Cowen, describing his property, which was shaded by trees before the Butte Fire
Like the Cowens, they often live in temporary shelters surrounded by vast tracts of blackened trees. Fire authorities say that those dead trees are prime fuel for new fires and that state and local agencies and utility companies are working overtime to clear them.
“It’s just a standing dry, dead fuel bed,” Chief Ken Pimlott, head of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said last week. “Fire will move through stands of dead trees at exponential rates.”
The Cal Fire director said last winter’s normal rainfall delayed this year’s fire season but didn’t dampen California’s epic drought enough to prevent more conflagrations.
“We are really in the fifth year of a drought in many areas of the state, particularly the southern two-thirds,” he said. “We’re parched.”
“Even with precipitation and snow in the northern half of the state, it’s not enough to reverse the impacts of way-below normal precipitation (during the previous four years).”
The rains did produce a bumper crop of tall grasses that will dry out and serve as kindling for forest fires, “that very light flashy fuel where fires first ignite,” Pimlott said.
“We’re getting to a place where we’re ripe to burn,” he said.
Already, fires have erupted in the northern part of the state. Friday, the Camanche grass fire in Amador County burned 200 acres, closed Coal Mine Road and forced evacuations. By Saturday, it was 85 percent contained and the evacuations were lifted.
The lightning-sparked Pony Fire has burned nearly 3,000 acres in the Klamath National Forest in Siskiyou County. It was 40 percent contained as of Saturday.
In the south state, the wind-driven Sherpa Fire in Santa Barbara County closed Highway 101 and exploded to 4,000 acres on Friday. By Saturday, the fire had spread to to more than 7,600 acres and was 45 percent contained. State authorities warned that Southern California could experience potentially record-breaking temperatures starting Sunday.
And last week, a simple spark from a lawnmower started an 83-acre wildfire in Calaveras County called the Cheyenne Fire. Though it was brought under control, it provided a sobering reminder of the dangers at hand.
Firefighters are gearing up for what could be another year of massive wildfires, including populated areas, Pimlott said. Forecasters predict a higher-than-normal potential for fires in the central and southern Sierra Nevada and in Southern California, he said.
Extended drought and higher temperatures caused by climate change are likely to keep firefighters on high alert for years to come, Pimlott said.
“California has always had a climate conducive to wildfire ... (but) the overall trend is toward a more flammable state,” he said.
The overall trend is toward a more flammable state.
Ken Pimlott, director of Cal Fire, discussing climate change
The state and counties will need to get smarter about land-use planning to limit settlement in fire-prone areas, he said. Tens of millions of dollars have been allocated to planning evacuation routes, reducing forest fuels and removing standing dead trees, especially near utility line and roads, he said.
“This has been a long-term slow-moving disaster,” Pimlott said.
At the Cowens’ homestead on Railroad Flat Road near Mountain Ranch, the Butte Fire took everything they had in minutes, including their house.
“It melted,” Michael Cowen said.
Only eight of the hundreds of old-growth trees on their property are still alive, he said. The couple hope to rebuild even though their insurance won’t cover full replacement costs.
Cowen has done the best he can to make the trailer comfortable, including hooking up power by buying a utility pole for $1,100 and installing it so Pacific Gas & Electric could connect its power lines to the trailer.
(Poor tree maintenance by PG&E and its contractors led to a tree falling on a power line and starting the fire near Jackson, according a Cal Fire investigative report. The company is being sued for hundreds of millions of dollars by government entities, including Cal Fire and Calaveras County, and by residents who lost their homes.)
Cowen also got his well working again and built a shaded platform for a clothes washer and dryer beside his gravel driveway. He installed an inflatable children’s pool recently so his son could play in relief from the heat.
“With electricity I was able to do the well,” Cowen said. “With the well I was able to bring my family here.”
The situation can seem nightmarish, he said, but it’s better than the temporary trailer parks they lived in for six months after the fire. The land is still theirs and can be rehabilitated, he said.
Cowen said he hopes his son will inherit the property someday when the woods are green again. His voice broke and tears filled his eyes as he talked about the difficulty of rebuilding his family’s life from nearly nothing.
“Some days the amount of work is incomprehensible,” he said. A measure of relief comes from neighbors who drive by, beep their horns and yell his nickname, Cowboy, he said.
“They all give me love when they go by and honk.”
About half of Cowen’s neighbors, especially those who were older, decided to take their insurance money and move to nearby towns such as Jackson and San Andreas, he said. Even some whose houses didn’t burn decided they’d had enough; the fire destroyed the wooded landscape they loved, he said.
Many fire-scarred properties were taken over by marijuana growers. Their terraced gardens and circular planters cover hillsides easily seen from roads. Residents tell of taking walks and being confronted by men with rifles.
The bottom line that brought us back was the people.
DiAnne Lawley, on choosing to rebuild near Mountain Ranch
DiAnne Lawley, 72, said she’s bothered by the influx of pot growers and the 360-degree view of dead trees from her hilltop property. But she decided to rebuild anyway after her house and cabin burned down.
Lawley walked her 4-month-old German shepherd puppy into her newly framed house. It will have a large game room for her grandchildren and handicapped access for her old age, she said.
Lawley said that after looking elsewhere for months, and weighing the fire risk of living in the foothills near Mountain Ranch, she decided to rebuild to be near her old neighbors, or at least those who remained.
“The bottom line that brought us back,” she said, “was the people.”