Dixie Fire Evacuees Tune In to a Firefighter’s Daily Videos

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Dan Kearns carrying his son while speaking to local residents about the Dixie fire in Taylorsville, Calif.
Credit...Christian Monterrosa for The New York Times
  • Aug. 27, 2021, 5:42 p.m. ET

TAYLORSVILLE, Calif. — In the six long weeks since the Dixie fire, the second-largest blaze on record in California, erupted in the northern Sierra Nevada, the fire has scorched vast tracts of forest, incinerated gold-rush towns, and upended thousands of lives, forcing people across 1,000 square miles to flee their homes.

Through it all, the scattered residents of the area around Greenville, a town of about 1,000 that was all but destroyed early this month, have been able to count on one thing, at least: the raspy, reassuring voice of Daniel Kearns helping them to make sense of what is going on back home.

Mr. Kearns, a volunteer firefighter from nearby Taylorsville, posts daily live videos online that explain the latest fire activity maps — which at a glance might look as though the fire had swallowed the place whole — and that show that reality on the ground, though very, very smoky, is a little less terrifying than it might appear from afar.

“Only through all this can I hear that the fire is around our family home and feel calm about it,” Michaela Garcia wrote about Mr. Kearns’s videos this week from Chico. “Thank you, Dan, we are truly so lucky.””

A former Marine, Mr. Kearns, 39, can project calm even when the mountain behind him is on fire and pouring smoke — as it was this week while the fire menaced Taylorsville — or when it is approaching places he knows well. “My mom’s,” he said recently, pointing at the map.

He began posting the daily live videos on his personal Facebook page in late July, about two weeks after the Dixie fire erupted, because he saw misinformation spreading online about towns being destroyed in the Indian Valley, which is surrounded by densely forested mountains. “I could tell it was really upsetting people,” he said.

The audience for the videos surged after Greenville burned down on Aug. 4 and more of the area was evacuated in the following weeks. Even as he assisted fire crews fending off the flames, Mr. Kearns gathered information for his videos by touring the valley in his fire engine, and meeting regularly with Forest Service personnel.

Many local residents felt that the fire authorities’ own briefings were superficial or that they painted a misleadingly cheery picture of events on the ground, said Travis Rubke, a retired science teacher who had to evacuate from Greenville. “It’s good to have a local,” Mr. Rubke said. “People say, ‘You’ve got to tune in to Dan.’”

The Lookout, a website run by Zeke Lunder, a forestry and fire expert whose heat maps and analysis are also widely followed by people in the fire’s path, has referred to him as “volunteer community PIO/hero Daniel Kearns.” And his videos now get as many as 3,000 views a day from people as far away as New Mexico and New Zealand.

“I’ve found that the truth, no matter how painful and ugly it is, calms people down,” Mr. Kearns said, in an interview. “And this is a very important time for people to be calm.”

There is more to his appeal, though, than just the latest facts. Mr. Kearns personalizes his videos with off-the-cuff remarks, passionate critiques of federal forest management policies and soulful reflections on “the trauma on our land and people.”

He closes each video by taking off his cap, closing his eyes and calling for “a moment of silence for our natural relations” — the burning forests and the bears, foxes, deer and other wildlife that lives in them.

Those moments — like the videos themselves — have provided a daily ritual for people flung far from their homes and neighbors, and a mantra for those still in the valley who are trying to keep the flames away from cattle ranches and sacred Native American ground.

Mr. Kearns says he hopes to remain a voice of calm and a source of accurate information as long as the fire persists. But he often reminds his audience, “I’m just a guy.”

And if higher-ups don’t like his videos, he says, the worst they can do is take away his cap.

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