Mountain People

I wrote this piece a couple days after my hometown of Westwood narrowly missed being burned up by the Dixie Fire. We had spent the previous week watching closely as the fire moved steadily, and sometimes rapidly, toward town. Everyone up there was evacuated, and a lot of old friends were leaning on The Lookout for news.

Here again at 6am, waiting for the latest IR data to arrive… I’ve been wanting to write about people, as this website will be a three-legged stool about people, land, and forest/fire management.

I have been thinking a lot about how people experience the world around them, and why reporting on the Dixie Fire is so different from any other intel work I have ever done. It’s the place, of course.



My folks moved to Westwood from Berkeley, California on May 1, 1979. The next day it snowed. I was five, and had only seen snow maybe once. It was cold. We had no firewood, and that was the only way to heat our new rental, which was, like most of the houses in town, built in the 1920s by the Red River Lumber Company. They had used sawdust from the mill to insulate the houses, but cracks in the siding had let all the sawdust leak out over the years. The neighbor girl, Carla, showed me she had two pairs of jeans on, and that’s how you dressed for snow. She was maybe five years older than me. In the fall, she and her mother, Vi, would go cut firewood and come back from the woods with a dead deer on top of a big load of lodgepole pine. Often there would be sawdust stuck to the deer’s eyeball. Friends would come over to smoke cigarettes, drink beer and watch Vi gut the deer. As a seven-year-old it seemed like everyone was very happy.

The neighbor’s older kid was a troublemaker. He rode a loud two-stroke dirt bike up and down the alleys, siphoned gas from my dad’s motorcycle and even stole my dad’s clunker bike once. He got a ticket for riding his dirt bike on the street and got even by throwing a Molotov cocktail into Sheriff Curtis’s car downtown. My mom and I visited him in the county jail in Susanville a couple times. Later, he did labor on some of my dad’s building jobs. His father, Abe, was a signmaker who slabbed cedar logs with a chainsaw mill and carved giant letters into them. He had carved a life-sized Indian warrior with a full feather headdress, could paint freehand in dozens of fancy typefaces and used sticks and a pencil to lay out his designs. He had big green woodworking machines salvaged from the old Westwood Sawmill, and a piano in his shop without any front on it so you could see the hammers moving. He was a self-taught jazz guitar genius and played a style of stride piano like my grandma — both old Minnesotans. His shop smelled like sawdust and tobacco. He always seemed elderly, but one day we went ice skating on Rice Lake, up A-21, and he skated circles around us, speeding in all directions, always skating backwards, hands in his pockets, with a cigarette hanging from his grin.

We lived on Elm Street for a couple of years while my dad designed and built a huge new house a block away. It was inspired by Norwegian stave churches. Nobody had built such a large house in Westwood for 50 years. In fact, only a few new houses have been built in Westwood in the past 100 years, and people thought we were odd, I think. The house had a big greenhouse which the oldtimers assumed existed only to grow pot. My dad got a chainsaw, put a posi-traction rear axle on his pickup and started scouting for lodgepole on his motorcycle. We were outsiders, maybe, but my dad grew up without running water on a wheat farm in Eastern Montana and mom lived in Israel between two wars, so they had survival skills and were figuring it out. The girl next door became a teenager and had her own dirt bike. I’d see her stalled in the field on the corner, using a cigarette lighter to clean the oil off her fouled spark plugs.

Westwood culture was a mix of back-to-the-land urban refugees, Vietnam vets, bikers, loggers, teachers, young and elderly descendants of old mill workers, and Forest Service employees. Someone told me, “There was only one bar so we all had to drink together, and they didn’t like us, but all us ‘Nam vets were packing guns, so the loggers pretty much left us alone.” Houses were cheap, but I wouldn’t call it a welcoming place. There weren’t a lot of year-round jobs, we burned through six or seven cords of wood each winter, and it could be below zero for weeks in the winter. Sometimes the snow was six feet deep and you had to shovel your roof so it wouldn’t cave in. There was about one murder every year or two in a town of 2,000 people, and some of my schoolmates lived through winter without running water. Now after 40 years my mama can call herself a local, but it seemed like many of the people who were actually born in the Westwood Hospital (closed since the 1960s?) or descendant of the old Red River days (the mill closed in 1950s) came into the world with a distrust of outsiders, and my parents were always ‘those Berkeley people.’

My folks didn’t seem too concerned about their outsider status and didn’t go out of their way to try to win over the oldtimers. After their friends had miscarriages and people started getting alarmed about the U.S. Forest Service spraying Vietnam-surplus Agent Orange and 2-4D on tree plantations within the Almanor Ranger District, my dad went door-to-door circulating a petition for a county ordinance that would ban herbicide spraying on public lands. My mom helped start a feminist women’s center downtown, and my dad ran for county supervisor and didn’t come in last. I made friends with kids my age whose dads were foresters (and wouldn’t sign my dad’s petition) Loggers, millwrights, teachers, truck drivers, builders or prison guards. About a dozen of us went all the way from pre-school through high school together.

Most of the men in town had dirt bikes. Kids, too. In Westwood, there is a dirt alley behind each house that connects to well-worn trails and all of the logging roads. Maybe you’d have to poach a couple blocks on the pavement, but it was easy for anyone to ride their dirt bike from their house to the woods. And once you were in the woods, you could go anywhere.

People in Chester, Westwood, Greenville, they know the woods. There is a bubble of land about the size of a motorcycle gas tank that just about anyone who grew up in one of these towns knows intimately. And the all-important lodgepole pine tree stretches through this territory.

Lodgepole needs fire to regenerate. It grows on the edges of wet meadows, usually a little higher in elevation, where there is a bit more snow. Lodgepole has skinny branches and thin bark. It usually doesn’t live very long, so there are almost always  standing dead trees in any given stand. And people need lodgepole to live in the mountains. It is the firewood. Easy to split and it burns clean, leaving minimal ash. There is an overabundance of white fir in these mountains — another result of fire suppression — and young white fir have thin bark and low branches . They are easily killed by even mild fires, but we have done away with regular fire, so now we have thickets of white fir.

So why not burn white fir instead of lodgepole? Public shaming, for a start. My dad cut a truckload of white fir for firewood once and wondered why he was getting so many dirty looks on the way home. My best friend’s dad was a forester.  After school, standing next to the pile of fir my dad had unloaded from the truck, sniffing the urine smell of the fresh-cut wood, my friend said with scorn, “Nobody cuts white fir, you need lodgepole, doesn’t your dad know anything?” We were about 10.

Because lodgepole grows farther from town (and gets farther and farther away each year as we all cut it), everyone has to make pilgrimages north of town every fall to cut wood. So we got to know new places like Swain Mountain and Upper Robbers Creek. An army of old trucks crawling the woods in search of good wood.

Hunting deer, ducks and mushrooms, firewood scouting, fishing, snowmobiling, and even frisbee golf are all mountain pastimes that teach locals about the place they live, but a good number of the locals actually work in the woods, as their families have for generations. Now my kids, flatlanders, have been getting to know mountain places through my work, traveling with me on wildfire-hazard survey work and coming up to fire lookouts to watch the mountains burn. When we visit my folks, my 11-year-old disappears into the woods immediately, throwing rocks at Wayne’s old car — a silver Volvo that got parked in the woods in about 1985 after Wayne got a ticket for failing to pay the registration. It was shot full of holes, bashed with large rocks, and dragged around by trucks within a week. 35 years later, Wayne is gone, and his car is just another local landmark. The plantations the Forest Service sprayed with 2-4D all burned up in the Dixie Fire, and my mom can sit on a porch with the matriarch of the town’s biggest timber family and talk about the old days.

That’s what’s different about this assignment. Many of the placenames in my reports aren’t actually on maps at all. I can tell locals the firing operation finished up west of the Westwood Dump on the north side of Highway 36 at the big old landing with the big thicket of baby pine trees and they know exactly where I am talking about, and probably, even when it was last logged.

I can do wildfire intel work anywhere. The mapping tools are universal, the heat satellites orbit the entire globe. But I can’t really do this kind work anywhere else.