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Survivors of the Mill Fire want to rebuild, but insurance access will determine what's possible

Weed with Shasta.jpg
Erik Neumann
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JPR
Destroyed buildings and cars from the Mill Fire in Weed, CA on Sept. 2, 2022. Mt. Shasta stands in the background.

Last summer, a wildfire destroyed much of the Lincoln Heights neighborhood in Weed, California. Residents’ access to state and federal assistance will determine whether this historically Black neighborhood will be able to stay together.

On the day the Mill Fire started, Alonzo Greene was at his home in Lincoln Heights. He heard a “boom” outside, so he went out on his porch, where, he said, he smelled fire.

“I kind of thought it was a structure fire, and I thought that I’d be able to help,” he said.

Greene grew up in Weed. For 23 years, he was the assistant pastor at the Mt. Shasta Baptist Church, and he recently retired as a firefighter. Immediately, he realized the situation was bad.

“All these houses were burning,” he recalled. “This house up on the hill was totally involved right then. I saw a cousin of mine, told him this was bad, you’ve got to get out of here. I went from there to Ms. Calvin’s house, beat on her door, kicked it in. She was scared. I’m like, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get out. Your house is on fire.’”

As the fire swept across the neighborhood, he crammed six residents into his truck to evacuate.

Most of Lincoln Heights was lost during the fire on Sept. 2. Around 12 homes are still standing, out of about 60 that were once there, according to Greene. Two people were killed, including one of his cousins.

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Erik Neumann
/
JPR
Alonzo Greene and his German shepherd at home in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Weed, CA. Greene's house was spared by the Mill Fire but many of his neighbor's homes were destroyed on Sept. 2.

Lincoln Heights is an anomaly: a predominantly Black neighborhood in rural, far-Northern California. In the early 1920s, the lumber industry drew Black residents from the South to Weed to work at the local lumber mill. Growing up, Greene worked at the Roseburg Forest Products mill. His father worked there when it was the International Paper Company. So did his grandfather when it was Long Bell Lumber Company.

Denise Hopkins was also born and raised in Weed and is a resident of Lincoln Heights. She lost two houses in the fire. One was her own home and the other was a rental.

“When we finally got to get in there and see everything, it was just devastating because we’d been in that house for 40 years. And so we lost all of our family heirlooms and our family things,” she said. “Things can be replaced, but memories, that’s the hardest part.”

Many of the homes were passed down through multi-generational Lincoln Heights families, which Greene said makes the recovery process all the more urgent.

“They might not have even had paperwork,” he said. “They just [had] a hand-me-down. They just keep staying there. Some of the people are not able to go anywhere. This was all they had.”

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Erik Neumann
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JPR
Lincoln Heights resident Denise Hopkins volunteering at the Siskiyou Food Assistance food bank where she volunteers every week. Hopkins lost her home and a rental property during the Mill Fire.

When the Mill Fire started in early September, a “heat dome” had driven up extreme temperatures across California and contributed to the fire’s destruction. Such heat events are becoming more common because of human-caused climate change.

There’s a term for the way climate change disproportionately affects communities of color, like Lincoln Heights, and the poor. It’s called “the climate gap.”

It was defined by a group of researchers including Rachel Morello-Frosh, a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. Her research focuses on how vulnerable communities are impacted by climate change. She said Lincoln Heights is a good example in a rural community.

“That community has managed to persist, and then this wildfire, literally in a very short period of time, has devastated it. Its ability to come back from that I think remains in question,” she said.

Kim Greene, who is not related to Alonzo Greene, was the mayor of Weed when the fire took place. She said there was already a housing shortage in Weed beforehand, and residents’ ability to rebuild will depend on whether they had insurance.

“There were a lot of people who weren’t insured, and there were a lot of people who were under-insured. Because, you have a house that was built in 1935, you can’t replace it with the insurance you had on that house right now,” Greene said.

Similar losses happened after Hurricane Katrina, according to Morello-Frosh.

“What happened in New Orleans is a huge reason why the demographics of New Orleans shifted significantly. Because a lot of Black families who lost their homes could not afford to rebuild and come back because they were woefully under-insured and they didn’t have flood insurance,” she said. If state and federal recovery efforts don’t take these insurance inequities into account, the same demographic shift could happen in Lincoln Heights.

“That’s probably what will happen and what we’ve seen in communities across the country,” Morello-Frosh said.

Right now, residents are in the cleanup phase. The fire has not yet been approved as a federal disaster, so FEMA isn’t currently helping with the recovery process. The state of California has agreed to pay for housing for displaced residents at hotels or in trailers. Roseburg Forest Products, where the fire started, has donated an initial $50 million for residents.

There have been other fires in the area in recent years: the Boles Fire in 2014, the Lava Fire in 2021. Greene said he only knows of one resident of Lincoln Heights who decided to move. Everyone else, he said, wants to rebuild.

“It’s going to look totally different. But it’s still going to be Lincoln Heights,” he said. “With that, I believe that we can make it as great as we want.”

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.