‘I still feel it isn’t real’: Gold Rush town residents reckon with wildfire devastation | California

After weeks of fire, smoke and warnings, Kimberly Price and her beloved town had run out of time.

With wind driving the Dixie fire directly into Greenville, Price’s longtime partner, John Hunter, told her she needed to leave. Price, 58, had spent most of her life in the close-knit Sierra Nevada community. She couldn’t bear the thought of leaving, but the flames were everywhere.

The Dixie fire approaches Greenville.
The Dixie fire approaches Greenville. Photograph: Courtesy of Kimberly Price

She made Hunter promise he would follow, and then she left Greenville, driving away from the home she had bought from her grandparents, with the butterfly bushes and cherry trees she carefully tended, away from the house where her granddaughters had spent their whole lives, away from the storage unit that held handmade Christmas ornaments and her mother’s belongings, and away from the 92-year-old store hardware store that Hunter owned.

Within an hour, most of it was gone.

Flames overtook the Gold Rush town of 1,000 people on Wednesday, destroying homes and much of the area’s historic downtown: a hotel, a bar and the Hunter Ace Hardware store. Like Paradise and Berry Creek before it, Greenville became another northern California town devastated by fire. Firefighters are still battling to contain the Dixie fire, which had burned an area of 765 sq miles (1,980 sq km) and was just 21% contained as of Monday. Residents, unable to return home, try to reckon with their losses.

Price, driving with her two dogs and a parrot, made it about five miles before she pulled off the road, overcome with emotion. She had held out in the town as long as she could. After the first evacuation order came through nearly two weeks earlier, Price stayed behind and spent her days feeding her neighbors’ cats, chickens and rabbits, sending them photos of their homes, and working at the hardware store. But things worsened on Wednesday, and a warning of the approaching fire came from a customer at the store, a local landmark.

Hunter Ace hardware store in Greenville, California.
Hunter Ace hardware store in Greenville, California. Photograph: Courtesy of Kimberly Price

“John has been a fireman for over 45 years. He didn’t think this was gonna happen, but the wind came up and it was over,” she said. “I was there until the very end and it was horrible. It was like being in a movie.”

Price evacuated to the nearby town of Quincy, where her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter had also sought refuge. Hunter joined her later that day. And soon, Price learned what was lost: her daughter’s house and so many downtown buildings that had been a cornerstone of life in the area, Hunter’s homes and the old store, where her youngest granddaughter worked and where Price had been organizing a new pets section.

John Hunter and Kimberly Price.
John Hunter and Kimberly Price. Photograph: Courtesy of Kimberly Price

People sometimes came to the hardware store from out of state, eager to see the historic items that lined its walls, like Indigenous baskets and antique guns. It was old-fashioned, too – customers still had accounts, and Hunter sent them monthly invoices drawn up on an old typewriter in his upstairs office.

“We lost all that,” she said. “The whole of July is burnt up. We don’t know what people owe us. They can’t pay anyway, because they lost everything.”

Price’s own home survived and she’s eager to return to it but doesn’t know exactly what she’ll be returning to. “I want to go home. But I feel guilty because my daughter lost everything, my partner lost everything, but my house is still there,” she said, crying. “What is there to go back to? It might as well have burned to the ground with everyone else’s.”

The family is staying with friends in Quincy for the time being, until they can return home, and they are trying to process the trauma of what happened. Price recently broke down on a trip to a mall in Reno.

She said: “It’s starting to hit me, and I just want it to not be real. I’m still in shock and I still feel this isn’t real. How can a whole town be taken out in minutes?”

Kimberly Price’s home in Greenville, California, in smoky conditions.
Kimberly Price’s home in Greenville. Photograph: Courtesy of Kimberly Price

Hunter’s insurer cancelled the store’s policy last year due to fire risk in the area, and the couple don’t plan on reopening it, but they are considering staying in town to help it rebuild. Greenville isn’t like other places, Price says. People care deeply about their community there, she said – even today a neighbor who stayed behind is continuing to water her garden.

“We’re a strong community. We do that for each other,” she said.

Still, it’s hard to know what the future holds with the fire still burning.

“It’s hard to swallow and it’s not over,” she said. “All of that area is in danger. That fire is going everywhere. It’s spreading everywhere. I don’t think they’re going to stop it. I don’t think they’re going to be able to.”