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A timber mill below Mount Shasta gave rise to a historic Black community destroyed by wildfire

Segregation and climate change contributed to the destruction of the Lincoln Heights neighborhood in Weed, California


WEED, Calif.—On Sept. 2, DeAndre Thomas noticed the gusting wind at 5:30 in the morning. The 39-year-old had just finished his overnight shift at the veneer mill where he is a third-generation employee; his grandfather moved from Mississippi to Weed to work there in the mid-1900s.


Just after noon he lay down for a nap with his 11-year-old daughter, Jamila. He didn’t hear a boom around 12:45 from the mill property, now owned by Oregon-based Roseburg Forest Products, nor did he see flames ripping through the roof of one of its old warehouses.


By the time Thomas’s brother, who lives across the street with their parents, pounded on his door—You in there? Get out!—30 mile per hour winds were tossing embers onto Lincoln Heights, the neighborhood where they live just across the railroad tracks north of the mill.


Thomas opened the door to flames crackling on beige grass and crawling up a small tree. He and Jamila grabbed shoes and left just as a towering cedar a few feet from the home he shares with his wife and their two other children caught fire. “Daddy, I’m scared,” Jamila repeated through her tears.


A few blocks away, Stacey Green ran out of his home in socks into a neighborhood he couldn’t recognize, despite a lifetime there. He learned to ride his brown tricycle in Lincoln Heights, delivered The Weed Press to neighbors as a kid, and now serves as a city councilman and mayor pro tem. But thick, black smoke obscured everything. “I didn’t know where the ground was, but I was walking on it,” he recalls. “I kept asking myself: Am I dead? Am I dying?


All he could hear was the wind and “fire whirling like an angry devil.”


The flames pushed northward, running past cattle pastures and into a residential, wooded neighborhood known as Lake Shastina, even scorching part of the lake bed that drought has left exposed. In the end it burned nearly 4,000 acres and destroyed more than 100 homes and other buildings.


The fire killed two women before they could escape Lincoln Heights—Lorenza Mondoc Glover, 65, and Marilyn Hilliard, 73, who died of a heart attack, according to her friends.

Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, is still investigating what caused the Mill Fire, but evidence points to an ignition on the mill’s property, likely in a warehouse known as “Shed 17,” an old wooden building the size of a football field. That’s where Roseburg stored ash from a cogeneration plant that burned wood scraps to power the mill.


This wasn’t the first time ash had ignited fire in the shed, says Weed fire chief, Steve Duncan, who recalls responding to two other fires over the last five years, but in those instances Shed 17’s sprinkler system snuffed out any major spread.


Darin Quigley, Weed’s fire chief from 1990 to 2015, says only once during his tenure did smoldering ash in Shed 17 escape concrete barriers meant to separate the ash from the building’s flammable wood walls, but sprinklers “knocked it down,” he recalls.


On Sept. 2, Quigley could see Shed 17 implode in flames from the deck at the back of his house, and he knew the conditions were such that the fire was going to take off. “It’s so hot and dry these days with climate change. There are so many spot fires that just go,” he says. “If this had happened in 1990, the building would’ve burned down. But we would’ve held it there, not had 4,000 acres burned and two dead.”


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