California’s Dixie Fire has been exploding in size in recent days amid high winds and hot temperatures, and while the blaze 230 miles northeast of San Francisco torched an additional 2,000 acres on Sunday, its speed of growth slowed.
A heavy blanket of smoke created a temperature inversion, and incident meteorologist Julia Ruthford said at a Sunday night briefing that this cooled the fire. Plus, winds were calmer, according to Plumas News. “The smoke turned out to be our friend,” Ruthford said.
Cal Fire pinned the blaze at 192,849 acres, or 301 square miles, on Sunday night. That’s six times the size of San Francisco. It’s 21% contained.
The fire is the 15th largest fire ever in California, according to Cal Fire data.
Though more evacuations were issued Sunday, the overall day was a relief after Saturday, when the fire exploded into a raging monster merging with the smaller Fly Fire and devouring multiple homes.
Flames had already leveled over a dozen houses and other structures when it tore through Indian Falls after dark. Some structures in this Plumas County neighborhood about 13 miles north of Quincy burned, but many were also saved.
“Devastating,” wrote one Twitter user, commenting on a video showing firefighters trying to put out flames engulfing a home.
As of Sunday night, the number of structures destroyed stood at 16 and minor structures at six. This number is expected to grow as crews on the ground assess damage, including properties in Indian Falls.
There are 10,721 structures still threatened.
The fire burned in steep, rugged terrain with limited access, hampering firefighters’ efforts as it charged eastward, fire officials said. It has prompted evacuation orders in several small communities and along the west shore of Lake Almanor, a popular area getaway.
The Fly Fire that ignited Thursday in Plumas County in Butterfly Valley and near the junction of highways 89 and 70 grew to 4,300 acres and merged with the Dixie Fire Saturday night into Sunday.
“These two fires have come together tonight,” Dennis Burns, a fire behavior analyst with Cal Fire, said at a Saturday night briefing posted on Facebook. “We have crews actively engaged in structure protection down into some of the communities along Highway 70 and in Butterfly Valley.”
Burns reported that the blaze didn’t pose a threat of pushing south toward Quincy at this time: “This fire is pulling itself over into Taylorsville. It went over the top of Mount Hough this afternoon. We’re seeing long-range spotting. The fire has also come down to Highway 89… to Indian Falls.”
The Plumas County Sheriff’s Office issued new evacuations Saturday and Sunday: See evacuation information from the sheriff here.
“Threats and risks associated with this fire are very real,” Commander Troy Minton-Sander said at a Saturday night briefing, adding later that “Taylorsville, Crescent Mills, and Greenville are our main concerns tomorrow. … If you occupy one of the mandatory evacuation areas, please leave.”
There are more than 7,400 people evacuated in Plumas County and more than 100 in Butte County due to the Dixie Fire, California’s Office of Emergency Services said.
The fire has pumped out massive pyrocumulus clouds and on Saturday the smoke plume was directly over the town of Greenville.
“When I was there at 4 o’clock, it looked like it was midnight,” said Burns. “A lot of ash fall.”
Wildfire photographer Josh Edelson shared a photo on Twitter taken in downtown Greenville late afternoon Saturday showing an eerily dark blood red sky waning into darkness overhead. “(iPhone pic) Darkest fire I’ve ever seen,” Edelson wrote. “Hearing this is directly under a 15k foot smoke column. It’s also 93 degrees.”
The Dixie Fire started July 13 in the Feather River Canyon near Cresta Dam, about 100 miles north of Sacramento. At well over 100,000 acres, it’s what considered a megafire. These are becoming increasingly common, especially in California, which has been hit repeatedly by extreme weather events, including heat waves, drought and dry lightning.
These humongous fires were rare in California before 2003 — but 18 of the 20 largest fires in the state’s history have occurred since then, according to state data.
Elsewhere in California, the Tamarack Fire south of Lake Tahoe continued to burn through timber and chaparral and threatened communities on both sides of the California-Nevada state line. The fire, sparked by lightning July 4 in Alpine County, has destroyed at least 10 buildings.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency for four northern counties because of wildfires that he said were causing “conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property.” The proclamation opened the way for more state support.
Such conditions are often from a combination of unusual random, short-term and natural weather patterns heightened by long-term, human-caused climate change. Global warming has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years.