Dixie fire: eight missing in largest single wildfire in California history
At least eight people were missing on Saturday as what has become the largest single wildfire in California’s recorded history continued to scorch through northern communities, forest and tinder-dry scrub in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
People in the scenic region were already facing a weekend of fear as the huge Dixie fire threatened to reduce thousands of homes to ashes.
The blaze, which has been raging for three weeks and incinerated much of the gold rush-era town of Greenville this week, was threatening more than 14,000 buildings in the northern Sierra Nevada. It had engulfed an area larger than New York City.
“We have received reports of eight unaccounted-for individuals,” the Pulmas county sheriff’s office, about 160 miles north of Sacramento, said on Saturday afternoon, asking for the public’s help in finding them.
Five of the missing belong to Greenville.
Dixie, named for the road where it started, spanned an area of 698 sq miles as of early Saturday evening, the largest current wildfire in the nation covering the largest area in recorded state history, and was less than a quarter contained.
In the first reported injuries of the Dixie blaze, four firefighters were taken to the hospital on Friday after being struck by a fallen branch, a California department of forestry and fire protection firefighter and spokesman, Edwin Zuniga, said.
“We’re hoping to gain ground. There are favorable weather conditions, with less wind and a blanket of smoke that blocks direct sunlight. It allows a higher humidity, which helps us,” Zuniga said.
Meanwhile, a federal judge has ordered the California utility Pacific Gas & Electric to “explain its role” in the Dixie fire’s combustion, according to a number of news reports on Saturday.
Investigators are still trying to pinpoint the cause of the fire. On Friday, the US district judge William Alsup issued an order demanding information from PG&E on a tree that fell on a power line at the point of ignition.
NEW: @PGE4Me’s federal probation judge, William Alsup, demands answers on the #DixieFire and #FlyFire.He asks about the tree that fell on PG&E’s power line at the Dixie origin point– demands inspection images showing what it looked like before it fell.#FirePowerMoney @ABC10 pic.twitter.com/4Q8s8GeV5M— Brandon Rittiman (@BrandonRittiman) August 7, 2021
Wind-driven flames destroyed dozens of homes and most of Greenville’s downtown on Wednesday and Thursday, and also heavily damaged Canyondam, a hamlet with a population of about three dozen people. The fire reached Chester but crews managed to protect homes and businesses there, officials said.
Charlene Mays kept her gas station in Chester open as long as she could, telling weary firefighters not to apologize for the trail of ash their boots left on the floor. But when the small town on the north-west shore of Lake Almanor lost power two days ago, Mays decided it was time for her to leave.
She ran home to grab a box of valuables. The smoke was so thick it was hard to breathe. Chunks of ash broke apart as they hit the ground, making a sound like broken glass.
Since then, Mays has been living in the parking lot of Lassen College in Susanville. Her husband stayed behind to maintain some water tanks firefighters were using. It’s just her, a miniature pinscher chihuahua named Jedidiah and a pit bull named Bear.
Her home was still standing on Friday but her fate was bound with the direction of the wind and she wasn’t alone.
“I’ve got probably 30 of my regular customers right here,” she said.
Weather at the fire site was expected to have higher humidity and calmer winds on Saturday, with temperatures topping 90F (32.2C) instead of the 40mph gusts and triple-digit highs recorded earlier in the week.
Heatwaves and historic drought tied to the climate crisis have made wildfires harder to fight in the American west.
Scientists say climate breakdown has made the region much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
Smoke from the fires blanketed central California and western Nevada, causing air quality to deteriorate to very unhealthy levels and, in some areas, the worst levels in the world as measured by World Air Quality Index, especially in Plumas county, about 170 miles north of Sacramento, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Air quality advisories extended through the San Joaquin Valley and as far west as the San Francisco Bay Area, where residents were urged to keep their windows and doors shut.
The Dixie fire has not burned across such a large area as certain massive multi-fire so-called complexes, including last year’s August Complex inferno, which surpassed the Mendocino Complex of 2018.
California is on track to surpass last year, which had the worst fire season in recent recorded state history.
Since the start of the year, more than 6,000 blazes have destroyed more than 1,300 sq miles, more than triple the losses for the same period in 2020, according to state fire figures.
The Dixie fire ignited less than 10 miles from the start of the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest in California’s history, also sparked by PG&E equipment, in the thickly forested Feather River Canyon, 100 miles north of state capital Sacramento. The Camp fire destroyed the towns of Paradise and Concow and killed 85 people.
California’s raging wildfires were among more than 100 large, active fires burning across 14 states, mostly in the west where historic drought conditions have left lands parched and ripe for ignition.