More homes burned and 10,000 others remained threatened Monday as a fast-growing northern California wildfire merged with another blaze and swept through the Plumas County community of Indian Falls.
"The Dixie Fire experienced significant growth and very challenging fire conditions," fire managers said in an incident report late Sunday.
The blaze had already leveled at least 16 houses and other structures, but a new damage estimate wasn’t immediately available because flames were still raging in the mountain area. Firefighters carrying hand tools were forced to hike through rugged terrain where engines can’t go, said Rick Carhart, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The fire, which started burning less than two weeks ago, has consumed 308 square miles of forest, brush and homes in Plumas and Butte counties, about two hours northeast of Sacramento. It was 22% contained as of late Monday afternoon. More than 5,000 firefighters are battling the combined Dixie and Fly Fires.
“It has been burning in extremely steep canyons, some places where it is almost impossible for human beings to set foot on the ground,” Carhart said. “It’s going to be a long haul.”
Strike teams with engines were in Indian Falls and nearby Paxton, communities totaling just a few dozen residents, to save what homes they could as the fire intensified, Carhart said. Firefighters prepared fire lines southwest of the town of Taylorsville to protect the community of about 200 as the flames advanced.
Smoke overwhelmed much of the area – but that was actually good news, Dixie Fire Behavior Analyst Dennis Burns said at a briefing.
"The smoke is like putting a lid on a pot," Burns said. "It really dampens the fire behavior. It doesn't allow the sun to preheat those fuels, and the thick smoke pushes the wind around to the sides (of the fire)."
Cal Incident Team 2 commander Mike Minton told a CBS-TV station that the fire behavior and conditions are not common for the area.
“The threats and risks associated with this fire are very real,” he said. "It’s very extreme fire behavior that essentially caused firefighters to have to retreat into safe areas and allow for that fire front to make its passage.”
The fire was among 85 large fires burning across 13 states, devouring more than 2,300 square miles of mostly forest and brush, the National Interagency Fire Center said.
Three people died Monday as their twin-engine jet crashed near a golf course in the Lake Tahoe area, reported the San Francisco Chronicle. The crash ignited a wildfire that was quickly contained before it threatened the town of Truckee, California, authorities said.
The USA's largest fire, the Bootleg Fire in Oregon, had burned about 640 square miles in the Fremont-Winema National Forest and was 53% contained as of Monday afternoon.
The fire has destroyed more than 70 homes, and thousands more were threatened.
"Seasonal drying coupled with drought conditions have made all fuels available for active burning conditions," fire managers said in an update late Saturday.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said the impact of climate change was being felt "in real time." She said her state is taking initiatives, such as thinning and burning in forests to mitigate risks. But federal help will be required, she said.
"Historic fires, extensive drought, unprecedented heat," Brown said on Twitter. "We need bold action from Congress to complement the steps we're taking at the state level."
Across the nation, air quality alerts were in effect in New England because of smoke from the Western wildfires, which made breathing difficult for sensitive groups, the National Weather Service said. "People with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly and children are the groups most at risk," the weather service warned.
Contributing: Elinor Aspegren
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Massive Dixie Fire merges with Fly Fire as California wildfires rage