Standing on her back porch and peering through a gap in the trees, out across a canyon, Liz Johnston can see a patch of red light. The night sky above it glows an intense orange. A few miles away, a hill is ablaze: Massive flames are engulfing a dense expanse of pines, fir, and cedar.
It’s August 16, 2021—the middle of California’s fire season. Johnston is looking out at the Caldor Fire, which over the next two months will go on to burn 221,835 acres and prompt evacuations in the resort town of South Lake Tahoe. But here, in rural El Dorado County, 40 miles east of Sacramento, she hasn’t gotten an evacuation order.
Johnston’s house sits on a hillside in a forest that’s simultaneously verdant and bone dry. Beside the deck are pots of flowers, which she plans to arrange into a memorial garden for her mother, who died less than a month ago. The place doesn’t feel right without her mom inside it. Now the outside is all wrong too.
Johnston pulls out her phone to try to track the fire’s path. She checks Facebook, which is abuzz with the chatter of other locals hunting for information. She starts scrolling through Twitter. She sees tweets saying the fire is bearing down on the nearby town of Grizzly Flats, and she starts to panic. Her heart racing, she dashes into the house and packs up the few belongings she can fit in her Toyota CR-V—photo albums, her dad’s ashes, her mom’s old coat. She squeezes her cat, Chelsea, and dog, Niner, into the car, climbs into the driver’s seat, and leaves.
She flees to a town called Diamond Springs, a few miles away, and stays at her boyfriend’s place. That night, much of Grizzly Flats burns to the ground. Officials shut down the roads in the area. Johnston checks the official government maps showing the blaze’s outermost edges, but they haven’t been updated in nearly 24 hours. On the county sheriff’s Facebook page, she finds an evacuation map that now includes her house. She thinks about all the things she couldn’t fit into her car. The big oak desk where her mom loved to sit. The pile of her clothes that Johnston hoped to make into a quilt. The brand-new flowers for her memorial garden. Johnston plays a bit of Animal Crossing to try to distract herself, but she can’t stop thinking about her house.
Year after year, the American West burns—millions of acres go up in blazes supercharged by a warming climate, densely packed forests, and increasingly populated rural landscapes. When flames threaten, residents of fire country have to make the colossal decision of whether—and when—to abandon their homes. State and local agencies can seem excruciatingly slow to provide updates. If the woods can seem lonely on a good day, on a fire day the silence breeds pure fear.
“Everyone’s stuck there trying to figure out what to do,” Johnston says. She spends the next few days glued to her phone—constantly refreshing her search of the #CaldorFire hashtag, wading through tweets about canceled Tahoe vacations, ignoring the gawkers ogling at the scale of the blaze.