Weed Goes Up in Smoke

     Fire ripped through the far Northern California town of Weed on Monday and burned down entire neighborhoods.
     The flames started south of town, and whipped by 40 mph winds quickly grew to 327 acres. As of Tuesday morning the Boles Fire was 20 percent contained, according to CALFire.
     Half of Weed’s 3,000 residents were evacuated. One could worry about the recovery prospects of the town, about halfway between Portland and San Francisco, yet that would be ignoring its roots.
     Weed owes its very existence to its abundant wind that Abner Weed found was great at drying lumber when he bought a local mill in 1897.
     Roseburg Forest Products now owns Weed’s only lumber mill. One of the town’s largest employers, it was damaged by the fire.
     Pulling green chain at the mill-frantically sorting piled strips of plywood by throwing them off a conveyor belt into carts, forearms slivered and bleeding by day’s end–is a rite of passage for youth in the town that is blue-collar and laced-up steel toes, compared to the open-toed metaphysical vibe of neighboring Mt. Shasta City.
     One can forgive the latter for its spiritual bent; both towns sit at the base of majestic 14,192-foot Mount Shasta, a link in the Cascade Range. The area’s typically snow-clad focal point can be seen from the Sacramento Valley 150 miles south.
     The mountain is bare this year and has been since January. There wasn’t enough snow for Mt. Shasta Ski Park to open its slopes in January and Northern California got no relief from the drought this summer, turning Weed into an unlikely tinderbox.
     Growing up in Weed, with enough yearly snowmelt and rainfall to fill four large reservoirs within 80 miles of the town, I never imagined it could get so dry.
     Now every corner of the Golden State is vulnerable.
     The town’s residents have the backbone to rebuild and since many were born and raised there they are connected to the outdoorsman and hunter-friendly land.
     Weed is locally known as an outpost of diversity in a majority-white area. Blacks moved there from Louisiana to work at Long-Bell Lumber Company’s mill after the company closed two mills in Louisiana in the early 1920s. Their descendants stayed, giving Weed the only substantial African-American presence of any town in the area.
     There’s also a sturdy population of Laotian and Mexican immigrants.
     Though Weed’s other top employer is College of the Siskiyous, a community college, its lifeline is its tourism.
     The town’s souvenir shop does a brisk business in suggestive merchandise. In the summer one can often see bleary eyed, grinning hipsters emerging from the store, shot glasses and T-shirts in hand.
     If you should ever drive through on your way to Portland or Seattle stop and take a picture under the Weed Arch with the mountain in the background.
     And despite the images Google pulls up for “Weed Fire,” remember it’s a California town with deep roots, deep enough to withstand any fire.

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