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On the day the Fly Fire broke out early last month, the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship had a crew of 53 on the payroll, including 32 high school students working through a paid summer trailbuilding program. It was the busiest time of year—a project slated to add 32 new miles of singletrack to Mount Hough outside the town of Quincy was fully approved and shovel-ready. Master planning for Connected Communities, a $41 million, 300-mile Lost Sierra legacy trail, was moving forward full-steam. And with COVID concerns finally curbed, at least momentarily, business at the Buttes’ outfitter arm, Yuba Expeditions, was booked with shuttles up to the 7,200-foot summit of Hough, where riders pick up 12 miles of flowy, smooth, ridiculously fun singletrack that descends 3,800 feet through a dense forest. It’s a trail the Buttes built after years of environmental and permitting work, and unveiled at the 2015 Grinduro race.
And then, devastation. Flames from the Fly Fire raged across Hough before merging with the Dixie Fire, now the second largest wildfire in California history, at 500,000 acres and only 30-percent contained. Greenville, one of the towns in the Connected Communities plan and featured in the “A Trail for Everyone” film detailing the project, is gone, having been engulfed as it sat in Dixie’s destructive path.
The entire region—including Plumas, Lassen, Sierra counties—has been shrouded in thick smoke for weeks, adding both a health risk and a mental toll to the equation. Greg Williams, executive director of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, is grateful and relieved that all his staff is safe, but some have lost their homes, are still without power and water, or have had to flee due to poor air quality. Then there’s the impending loss of two decades worth of work, millions of dollars invested and hundreds of thousands of crew hours in the woods, all part of the Buttes’ vision to turn formerly depressed towns into thriving communities built upon recreation-based economies. The damage is expected to be far-reaching—an earlier blaze, the Sugar Fire, took out part of the town of Doyle and singed trails from the old Lost & Found gravel race, and parts of the Bucks Wilderness, where the Buttes incorporated their signature granite rock work into the trails, also burned.
But Hough really hurts.
“Almost 20 years of work on Mount Hough, and it’s torched and got bulldozed (for firefighter access),” says Williams. “That trickles down to our guide outfitter in Quincy. The shop’s done for the foreseeable future.”
They moved everything to the Yuba shop in Downieville, which is still running shuttles to Mills Peak and Packer Saddle, but heavy smoke has forced the cancellation of those shuttles for the past two weekends. And Downieville is a different market—Hough was perfect for families and all levels of riders, while the trails around Downieville require a high level of skill, so Yuba isn’t expected to recoup all the business they’re losing from Mount Hough.
Williams doesn’t know the full extent of the damage on Hough—he’s been getting occasional photos and reports from folks he knows in the field—but the soonest the forest is likely to reopen after such devastation is 2023. A risk management plan will need to be devised, and standing dead trees will need to be hauled out. It’s a heartbreaking turn for a network that was poised to double in size in the next few years.
“By 2025, there would’ve been 100 miles of singletrack on that mountain,” Williams says. “It’s still all approved and the environmental work has been done, but it’s charbroiled now.”
Williams is running a leaner crew now, but is committed to keeping everyone on payroll through this time—he and his team need to be ready to help rebuild when the time comes. It’s daunting, especially since Williams was in the midst of scaling up to support Connected Communities, and is still recovering from the effects of COVID, which forced the cancellation of the Downieville Classic, one of the Buttes’ biggest fundraisers, in 2020 and 2021.
“We’ve lost our fundraising event for two years now. All of our unrestricted funding is drying up. We have a lot of project (grant) work, but unless you’re digging in the dirt you can’t bill hours to it. We have massive forest closures, then smoke, we can’t send trail crews out to work in that. They go home, get classroom time, we’re making sure they have all their certifications and accreditations, and they’re learning skills from trail bosses.” But that can only last so long, and the smoke forecast remains dire. Fortunately a recent Five Bucks a Foot campaign raised a record $106,000 that will help with operational costs, like payroll, rent and vehicle payments, and Williams is also pursuing large philanthropic donations to diversify from corporate partnerships that are tied specifically to events to help fund Connected Communities.
He’s also trying to secure work in the Tahoe area where the air is clear, in order to get his full crew back to work in the short-term, so that they won’t leave for other work opportunities, and will be there when the smoke clears in the Lost Sierra, literally and figuratively.
“We need to be ready to help rebuild, and be the catalyst to get people out on their public lands and get them mentally healthy again,” he says.
In the meantime, Williams is trying to stay busy and not think about the long-term impacts of this and the inevitable future fires; big questions like what this will do to these once-depressed former mining towns that were finally thriving again because of a burgeoning recreation-based economy that relies on healthy forests and clean air. And there’s even larger questions about climate change and the forest management practices that are at the root of the magnitude of the fires: When will science take precedence over politics so forests can be managed properly and action can be taken against a dangerously warming planet, so more communities like Greenville aren’t lost?
“People live in Quincy because it’s a beautiful place. We’ve been able to start to attract younger people into the outdoors, and get higher levels of talent because there are jobs now, and great trails and recreation there. Now, you look around and it’s all burned, who’s gonna stay?”