Crews at Tamarack Fire brace for ‘erratic winds’ as red flag warning takes effect

Fire crews battling the Tamarack Fire in Alpine County braced for unpredictable weather conditions Sunday as the blaze continued to burn intensely around the community of Markleeville.

The fire has charred around 25,000 acres and remains highly active and uncontained after burning into Markleeville and pushing north past Highway 89, according to Alpine County officials. At least six structures have been destroyed, the county said on a Facebook page.

A red flag warning set to last through 5 p.m. Monday along the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada in Northern California was issued over relatively dry thunderstorms that Forest Service officials said could disrupt their efforts.

“There are thunderstorms predicted today in the afternoon that may cause erratic winds in the fire area,” the Forest Service said in a Sunday morning update. “Today, firefighters will continue to actively suppress the fire where they can do so safely.”

Air support is also hinging on conditions, as too much smoke hampers attempts to deliver water into the fire zone. Smoke can be seen blowing northeast into Carson City and Reno, deteriorating air quality in the area to hazardous levels.

As a result of the continued fire activity, Forest Service officials have requested additional resources from across Northern California to assist in the fire fight. Strike teams from both Sacramento and Yolo counties have been called in for support. A total of 517 personnel are assigned to the Tamarack Fire, according to the Forest Service’s most recent update.

The additional help is a boon ahead of the National Weather Service’s warning of increased fire danger.

“We are seeing some instability,” Sierra Littlefield, a meteorologist at the weather service’s Sacramento office, said Sunday afternoon as storms began to form south of Sacramento in the Central Valley.

Littlefield said that the Tamarack Fire, along with the Dixie Fire, burning near the Feather River Canyon in Butte and Plumas counties, have already been observed developing pyrocumulus clouds — a kind of hot, smoky cloud which has the potential to form its own lightning storms, although no strikes have yet been observed there.

The cloud is “decidedly massive” — rising about 4 miles off the ground, said Shane Snyder, a meteorologist at the weather service’s Reno office, which is also observing conditions around the Tamarack Fire zone.

The main concern along the eastern slope is new fire starts as the red flag warning takes effect, as the incoming storms are relatively weak and not completely dry.

“We’re not too worried about crazy outflow winds, but you can’t rule anything out,” Snyder said, but the development of lightning above the Tamarack Fire remains a distinct possibility.

National Forest officials also announced Sunday that they were closing a 26-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail — from Highway 4 at Ebbetts Pass, to Carsons Pass on Highway 88.

Alpine is California’s least-populated county situated near the California-Nevada state line with less than 1,200 residents — many of whom have been forced to flee their homes as a result of the blaze, which sparked July 4 but remained relatively inactive, burning in remote territory, until late Friday.

On July 10, when the fire was only a quarter-acre wide, U.S. Forest officials said they made a “tactical management decision” not to dispatch fire crews due to “safety concerns,” but added that it was “not an unresponsive approach.”

Meanwhile, the Dixie Fire, burning near the scar of the deadly 2018 Camp Fire, has scorched 15,074 acres and was 15% contained by Sunday morning, according to an update from Cal Fire. The blaze continues to burn in the Feather River Canyon, where it started on Wednesday. Fire crews have made progress on containment lines, but conditions have proved challenging.

And the state’s largest wildfire, the Beckwourth Complex’s Sugar Fire, has burned 105,348 acres and was 73% contained Sunday. The fire’s acreage didn’t increase overnight.

The Mercury News of San Jose contributed to this story.