Thursday, September 23, 2021

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Dixie Fire mushrooms into second-largest wildfire in California history


The Dixie Fire that has forced thousands from their homes in Northern California and destroyed a historic town grew into the second-largest blaze in state history on Sunday, officials said, as the wildfire mushroomed to more than 463,000 acres.

The fire razed most of Greenville late Wednesday and continues to threaten nearly 14,000 buildings, firefighters said, underscoring the danger of climate change-fueled disasters. Most of California's biggest wildfires on record have erupted in the past year, as dry conditions and high temperatures lead to destruction, mass evacuations and smoke disrupting life in the West.

On Sunday, authorities said they were trying to keep Dixie's flames from reaching homes in the tiny community of Crescent Mills, just a few miles south of Greenville. As evacuation orders expand, they have been warning of unusually fast-spreading flames and "historically" low moisture levels leaving land primed to burn.

"We're seeing fire activity that even veteran firefighters haven't seen in their career," Edwin Zuniga, a spokesman for Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency, told The Washington Post. "So we're just in really uncharted territory."

Smoke has helped shade and moderate the flames but also stymied crews' ability to work from the air, Zuniga said, leaving those on the ground to spray retardant on mountain ridges and around threatened communities. Clearing skies on the blaze's northeast perimeter, meanwhile, have "led to more dynamic fire behavior," Cal Fire said in a Sunday incident report. The agency said the blaze was 21% contained, with more than 5,000 people trying to keep it at bay and full containment not expected for weeks.

It helped that the sun was often hidden Sunday, Cal Fire spokesman Mark Beverage said, limiting the opportunity for dry vegetation to heat up. But with warmer, drier weather expected in the coming days, he said, "We're looking at another tough week."

In acreage burned, Dixie has shot up California's all-time rankings in a matter of days. On Sunday it passed the massive 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire and now ranks behind only the August Complex Fire of 2020, which spread to more than 1 million acres. That blaze - the result of many smaller fires sparked by lightning - destroyed more than 900 structures and led to one death, according to Cal Fire.

Dixie's destruction is still dwarfed by past wildfires, including the 2018 Camp Fire that leveled the town of Paradise, catching residents off guard and becoming the deadliest blaze on record in the state. The Camp Fire killed at least 85 people and torched well over 18,000 structures.

Authorities say the Dixie Fire has ruined several hundred buildings. No fatalities have been reported.

In Greenville, a town of about 1,100 dating back to the Gold Rush era, the blaze left mostly rubble piles and charred building frames. The U.S. Forest Service said only about a quarter of the town's structures survived. In surrounding Plumas County - where officials say nearly 40% of the population is under evacuation orders - the sheriff's office said four people were unaccounted for as of Sunday morning.

At a news conference the night before, officials said the displaced have "just spread out everywhere," finding refuge in California towns such as Chico and Quincy, as well as out of state. Hanna Malak, a spokesman for the American Red Cross, said tens of thousands of people have been forced from their homes as the organization and its partners run 15 emergency shelters.

"Everybody's scattered and scared," said Brian Maldonado, 47, who said he did maintenance work at the Dollar General store in Greenville and recently evacuated from Westwood about 25 miles to its north. He and his partner, Desiree Maurer, are staying at a motel in Redding for now, their Jack Russell terriers in tow.

"Everything in our lives is upside down," Maurer said as online maps showed the fire burning perilously close to their home after creeping around a lake. "And we have it good. There are people right now in their cars, and they don't know where to go."

The couple has fled infernos before: In 2018, they barely escaped the encroaching Camp Fire in Paradise. Maurer and Maldonado remember an agonizing crawl through gridlock traffic as the town burned behind them and propane tanks popped like gunfire.

Like dozens of others who fled the Camp Fire, Maurer and Maldonado had started to slowly rebuild their lives in small, rural communities around Lake Almanor. Now, Maurer said: "We're losing more than our stuff. We're losing our way of life. If we move, we have to find another community." Despite the trauma of another evacuation, she wants to return to Westwood if she can.

She also said she wants to see more investments in fire safety from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the utility company under renewed scrutiny after saying its equipment may have started the Dixie Fire. The company pleaded guilty last year to involuntary manslaughter in the Camp Fire and acknowledged that its electrical grid caused the blaze.

"This shouldn't happen over one company," Maurer said.

While the cause of the Dixie still under investigation, U.S. District Judge William Alsup on Friday ordered PG&E to provide information about a tree that fell on the utility company's power line at the wildfire's origin.

"PG&E's responses will not be deemed as an admission by PG&E that it caused any fire, but they will serve as a starting point for discussion," wrote Alsup, of the Northern District of California.

A PG&E spokesperson told The Post on Saturday that the utility was aware of the court's orders and would respond by the judge's deadline of Aug. 16.

No civilian injuries have been reported in the Dixie Fire, but four firefighters were injured by a falling tree branch, officials said. Three have been released, while a fourth is in the hospital in stable condition, Zuniga said Sunday.

As the fire advanced, another historic spot burned: a nearly century-old scenic fire lookout in Lassen Volcanic National Park, park superintendent Jim Richardson said Saturday night. Many other sites with long histories remain at risk, he said.

Published : August 09, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Hannah Knowles