More than three weeks after it ignited in a remote canyon, the monster Dixie fire continued to break records Friday, leapfrogging Oregon’s Bootleg fire to become the largest burning in the U.S. and the third largest in recorded California history.
As the effects of climate change are felt more intensely worldwide, this singular blaze was raging in four counties — Butte, Lassen, Plumas and Tehama — and had scorched 679 square miles, an area considerably larger than the city of Los Angeles.
Stoked by extreme drought, dry vegetation and gusty winds, it was burning more rapidly and behaving more erratically than even veteran firefighters could recall ever seeing.
After razing the Sierra Nevada town of Greenville, the fire continued to spread and throw off spot fires Thursday, burning through the small community of Canyondam as it grew by 110,000 acres. That was more than double the 50,000 acres by which it expanded the day before, said Rick Carhart, public information officer with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“There have been times during the fire when pretty much every time that an ember would spot and land in grass, it was almost guaranteed to ignite and start another spot fire,” he said.
Firefighters were working Friday to protect homes around Lake Almanor, where fire had reached the western shore but had not yet burned to the peninsula, they said.
No deaths have been reported so far in the Dixie fire, but some residents are taking risks that alarm authorities. Law enforcement has issued evacuation orders for thousands of residents whose communities were under siege, yet some are choosing to stay behind, posing more challenges.
Greg Hagwood, a Plumas County supervisor, said that in the last 72 hours, as fire has swept through or threatened small mountain towns including Greenville, the evacuations have grown tense — in some cases, residents have met law enforcement with weapons.
“They are met with people who have guns and [are] saying, ‘Get off my property and you are not telling me to leave,’” he said.
In response to those who flatly refused to evacuate, he said, deputies were asking for next-of-kin information so they would have someone to notify if the holdouts died.
On Wednesday, authorities were forced to establish a temporary refuge area at a high school baseball field for people who had to flee or be rescued after they chose to stay behind in Chester. Some firefighters had to stop beating back flames to take people there, officials said.
Such undertakings carry a cost, said Capt. Mitch Matlow, public information officer on the Dixie fire.
“Then the fire can advance in areas where we might have otherwise been able to stop it, and the lives of the firefighters and the residents that they are moving to protect are put at increased risk,” he said.
On Thursday, authorities arrested three people who stayed behind in an evacuation zone in the Lassen County town of Westwood. All three were taken to jail, cited and released — two on suspicion of entering or remaining in an evacuation area, and one on suspicion of loitering on private property, said Lisa Bernard, public information officer with the Lassen County Sheriff’s Office.
“When we ask people to leave their homes, we take our duty to protect their property very seriously,” Bernard wrote in an email. Those who do stay behind are required to shelter in place inside their homes, and those who are found roaming the streets risk arrest, she said.
Hagwood said that as the former sheriff of Plumas County and a resident of Quincy, its historic heart, he has been on both sides of evacuation orders — issuing them and being subject to them.
A few years ago during the Minerva fire, he was forced to issue an order that covered his own home, as well as his parents’ up the street. Hagwood said the emotional intensity of evacuations on law enforcement and residents can’t be overestimated, especially in rural areas where everybody seems to know one another.
“You are talking about people’s homes, their property, everything they have worked for for their entire lives and sometimes generations,” Hagwood said. “Having the government, whether it’s local, state or federal, coming in and telling you you have to walk away from it is going to be met with some pushback.
“If you are in a large metropolitan area, you are making decisions that are affecting people you’ve never met, that you will never see,” he added. “Here, you are going to see them at the grocery store. You are going to be standing next to them at your kids’ athletic events going into the future.”
Don Guess of Crescent Mills chose not to evacuate because he was tired of it — it was the third time he’d been asked to leave during this fire.
The first time, he went to his father’s home near Lake Almanor. He was told to evacuate from there as well.
This time, he stayed because every two hours, he needed to fill the gas on his generator to keep the sprinklers on at his house.
But on Friday, after he’d been assured that firefighters were going to position in a place that would allow them to protect his home, he was planning to join his wife, who was already in Quincy.
“It’s crazy,” Guess said as he bought a bratwurst from Gigi’s Market, which remained open to supply a steady stream of emergency workers willing to eat whatever its proprietor was able to make. “I’m going to leave after I get something to eat.”
Firefighters were hoping that a break in the weather, with more stable and humid conditions on tap for the next week or so, would help them get the upper hand.
Still, the fire’s containment had fallen to 21% by Friday night, and more than 13,800 structures remained threatened. Smoke was polluting communities downwind Friday, including much of Lake Tahoe.
The Dixie fire ignited July 13 near a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power station in Feather River Canyon. PG&E has said its equipment might be to blame and might also have started a separate fire nine days later that eventually merged with the Dixie fire.
A perfect storm of conditions has driven the fire’s rapid spread, officials say.
“It’s all of the things together,” Matlow said Thursday. “It’s the heat. It’s the dry fuels. It’s the drought. It’s the wind we saw yesterday. It’s the slope.”
Firefighters were initially challenged by the steep, remote terrain, with some spots so rugged they were unable to get engines close enough to bring in hose.
The fire then moved into areas with heavy timber and no recent burn history, where the undergrowth served as so-called ladder fuel that allowed flames to get up into the crowns of the trees.
“That’s where you also get very extreme fire growth, is from those trees spotting ahead of themselves,” Carhart said.
After the fire grew for roughly three weeks and amid deteriorating weather conditions that saw winds gusting to 40 mph, it met unburned islands of fuel inside the perimeter that threw embers across containment lines firefighters had established, Carhart said. That set off its run toward Lake Almanor, Greenville and Chester, he said.
By then, its sheer size had made it impossible to control, as it sent up a huge plume of smoke and ash that generated its own weather patterns.
“The fire was so big that it was then building on its own,” Carhart said.
As firefighters scrambled to make progress against the behemoth, some residents were allowed back into the ruins of their communities.
Kevin Goss, a Greenville pharmacy owner and Plumas County supervisor, got his chance to assess the damage in his hometown Friday for the first time since he evacuated.
At the first road checkpoint, Goss met a state trooper who was on duty while his own home in Colfax was under evacuation orders.
Farther up the road, where he had to travel behind a pilot vehicle because the retaining wall of the bridge was still on fire, he came across county Sheriff Todd Johns coming down from the mountain.
Both men had been friends for years, and they were stoic but stunned by the losses they were witnessing.
Goss soon came across another close friend, a state trooper whose home lay in ash less than half a mile from where he was on duty.
The men traded news on where the fire was moving, relentlessly closer to Goss’ home deeper in the valley.
Goss turned on a back road leading into Greenville to check on friends’ homes.
At site after site, houses where he had gathered with friends and family had been reduced to nothing more than molten steel and heaps of ruin.
The fire had incinerated the Hideaway Motel and Lodge, which his parents had owned when they first moved here in the 1970s, down to its giant stone fireplace.
It was a good place to grow up, Goss said, recalling being snowed in one New Year’s when he was 5, when the entire town came on snowmobiles to celebrate the holiday.
Farther down, there were some signs that not everything had burned. A brown-sided home that belonged to his former brother-in-law was unscathed, its satellite dish still pointing toward the sky.
Nearby, two chickens pecked at crab apples that had fallen from a tree, and deer that had survived the blaze were roaming yards where sprinklers had kept grass green.
The road so filled with smoke that it required headlights in the middle of the day. Slowly, Goss was edging closer to what he really wanted to see: the oldest building in town, built in 1860. His pharmacy.
When the property finally came into sight, there was little but shock on his face.
At the back edge of the building was a pile of twisted plastic with the remains of an old child’s fire truck. It had been a toy he played with when he was a child, its metal hull now black, its red paint gone.
Standing beside the ruin, Goss could only try to find some humor amid the Dixie fire’s ashes.
“I didn’t even know there were bricks inside some of these walls,” he said, looking at their remains in the rubble. “That’s funny.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.