Firefighters achieve mixed success in containing Northern California fires

·5 min read
Firefighters battle the Sugar Fire, part of the Beckwourth Complex Fire, in Plumas National Forest, Calif., on Thursday, July 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Firefighters battle the Sugar fire, part of the Beckwourth Complex fire, in Plumas National Forest last week. (Associated Press)

As hot weather continued to bake the state Monday, multiple fires in Northern California increased in size and threatened communities, with the worst two being the Dixie and Tamarack fires.

The Tamarack is growing unabated at the California-Nevada state line and has burned more than 23,000 acres since lightning sparked it on July 4. Mandatory evacuations remain in place for several areas in Alpine County, including the small town of Markleeville. It is 0% contained.

The Dixie fire in Butte County has scorched more than 30,000 acres and is 15% contained. In a report filed over the weekend with the California Public Utilities Commission, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. said that company equipment may have set the fire, which has been burning since last Tuesday.

But there was better news on other blazes, including the biggest one this year.

The Beckwourth Complex fire in Plumas National Forest, which has been burning since July 3, reached 105,348 acres and was holding at 88% containment Monday.

"The crews are in good morale. It's a busy season, it’s an early season, but they’re still dedicated to getting out there," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jim Mackensen said. "The Beckwourth is winding down.... We are releasing a lot of our excess resources."

Several crews are being sent home to rest up or deploy to other fires, Mackensen said. Other firefighters are recovering equipment — such as hoses, generators, chainsaw kits, water tanks and other items — from the burn area and cleaning, repairing and readying it for the next incident.

Tricky weather could disrupt those plans, however. Monsoonal storms are expected, likely bringing more lightning and erratic winds. But more concerning than the weather is the parched land, Mackensen said. Most of the state is under a historic drought — evidenced by fields of fire-prone brush.

"We are under such severe dryness, the fields are tinder dry," he said. "The big fires we’re seeing now are all being driven by the dry fuel. It's not that we have big wind events. It's the slope and it’s the really dry fuels, they just really take off."

The Beckwourth Complex is the name for two separate fires — the greater is the Sugar fire, which started when lightning struck on July 2 and spread to 104,754 acres, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The other, called the Dotta fire, ignited on June 30 near Dotta Canyon. More than 1,500 personnel are battling the Beckwourth Complex, with 87 engines, 13 helicopters, 35 dozers, 43 water tenders and 10 grinding machines.

Mandatory evacuation orders are in place for Frenchman Lake, Doyle Grade, Sugarloaf, Plinco and Dixie Valley, according to the Plumas County Sheriff's Office. Other areas, such as parts of Highway 70, are under evacuation warning.

Dixie fire

Just down Highway 70, the main artery running through burning parts of the Plumas National Forest, the Dixie fire continues to burn in Butte County.

According to the report PG&E filed to the state, a utility employee responding to a power outage noticed a blown fuse at Cresta Dam in a heavily forested area around Feather River Canyon. The worker found two blown fuses and a tree leaning into a power lines conductor, “which was still intact and suspended on the poles,” the report said. “He also observed a fire ... near the base of the tree.”

The worker removed a third fuse that hadn’t blown, reported the fire, and his supervisor called 911, according to the document.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials swarmed the area, but the blaze grew quickly amid gusty winds and low humidity.

“The information PG&E submitted is preliminary, and the company submitted this report in an abundance of caution,” PG&E spokesman Matt Nauman said in a statement. “PG&E is cooperating with Cal Fire’s investigation.”

CPUC spokesman Christopher Chow said Monday that the report is under review.

"Utilities are required to report an incident to the CPUC when they have enough information to make a determination that an incident is reportable," Chow said in an emailed statement. "Our staff will investigate to determine if PG&E had enough information/awareness that the fire needed to be reported earlier."

Evacuation orders are in place for Plumas County, the High Lakes, and the Jonesville and Philbrook parts of Butte County, officials said.

The fires are also affecting Pacific Crest Trail; hikers must get off the trail from Quincy-LaPorte Road to Highway 36 near Chester because of evacuation orders.

An orange and black sky enshroud pine trees behind a red fire truck
Firefighters battle the Tamarack Fire in the Markleeville community of Alpine County, Calif., on Saturday, July 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Noah Berger) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Tamarack fire

On the lines of the Tamarack fire, firefighters are working to protect structures and establish a containment line around Markleeville, a small community that's also the county seat for Alpine County. Teams are working on the northern side of the fire, trying to keep it from spreading toward Carson Canyon before moving south, according to Cal Fire.

Several areas are under evacuation orders, including Markleeville, Grover Hot Springs and campground, Shay Creek, Marklee Village, Alpine Village, Woodfords, East Fork Resort, Blue Lakes Road and the community of Hung A Lel Ti, a southern band of the Washoe Tribe. Parts of Highway 89 are also closed.

Predicted rainstorms could help extinguish the fire, but could also worsen air quality in the area. Cal Fire recommends that people with respiratory issues stay inside to limit exposure.

River fire

The end is in sight for crews battling the nearly 10,000-acre River fire, which is 97% contained after a week of smoldering in Mariposa County, near Yosemite National Park. The fire destroyed 12 structures and damaged two, according to Cal Fire.

Cal Fire personnel will continue to work in and monitor the region for flare-ups, especially because thunderstorms with little to no rain but with dry lightning and gusty winds up to 40 mph are predicted until late Monday.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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