Firefighters battling the second-largest wildland fire in California history faced a return to fire-friendly weather, as thick smoke that held back winds and temperatures in scenic forests grew is emphasized.
Changing weather conditions near the Dixie blaze, which burns the northern part of the state, has concerned firefighters working in unprecedented conditions to protect thousands of threatened homes.
“The living trees that are out there now have a lower fuel humidity than you would find when you walked into a hardware store or lumberyard and scavenged that kiln-dried piece of wood,” Mark Brunton, Chief of the Operations Section for the Department of California. of forestry and fire protection, said Sunday morning in an online briefing.
“It’s so dry, so it doesn’t take much for embers, sparks, or a little flaming forehead to move it forward.”
Fueled by strong winds and dry vegetation, the Dixie Fire incinerated much of the mountain town of Greenville on Wednesday and Thursday, destroying 370 homes and structures and threatening nearly 14,000 buildings in the northern Sierra Nevada. .
The blaze, named after the road it started nearly four weeks ago, reached an area of 1,980 km² (765 square miles) on Sunday night and was only 21 percent contained, the department said. California Forest and Fire Protection. He had burned an area more than twice the size of New York City.
The winds were not expected to reach the fierce speeds that helped the blaze explode last week. But with the smoke clearing from the eastern parts of the blaze, teams that had directly attacked the front lines would be forced to retreat and build containment lines further away, said Dan McKeague, an official with US Forest Service fire information.
On the positive side, better visibility should allow planes and helicopters to return to combat and make maneuvering safer for ground crews. “As soon as the air clears, we’ll be able to fly again,” McKeague said.
Crews built 465 miles (748 km) of line around the giant blaze, said Chris Waters, deputy commander of the incident. This is roughly the distance between the city of Chico in central California and Los Angeles. But officials are only convinced about 20% of the line is secure, he said.
“Every part of this line needs to be built, staffed, cleaned and actually put to bed before we can call this fire fully under control,” Waters said in the incident briefing on Saturday night.
Strong winds contributed to increased fire activity on Sunday. But the weather should calm down a bit from Monday.
Damage reports are preliminary because assessment teams cannot go into many areas, officials said.
The blaze became the largest blaze in California history, overtaking last year’s Creek fire in the Central Valley, and the second largest in state history if the fires that have merged are included in the county. The blaze is about half the size of the August complex, a series of lightning-triggered fires in 2020 across seven counties that have been fought together and that state officials consider the largest blaze in California forest.
The cause of the fire was under investigation. The Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) utility said it could have been triggered when a tree fell on one of its power lines. On Friday, a federal judge ordered PG&E to give details by Aug. 16 on the equipment and vegetation where the fire started.
Cooler temperatures and higher humidity slowed the spread of the fire, and temperatures rose above 90 ° F (32 ° C) instead of the triple-digit highs recorded earlier in the week.
But the blaze and its neighboring fires, several hundred kilometers apart, posed a continuing threat.
California Governor Gavin Newsom assessed the damage in Greenville on Saturday. “These are climate-induced wildfires and we have to recognize that we have the capacity not only of the state but of this country to solve this problem,” Newsom told CNN.
Heat waves and the historic drought associated with climate change have made wildfires more difficult to fight in the American West. Scientists said climate change has made the region much hotter and drier over the past 30 years and will continue to make weather conditions more extreme and forest fires more frequent and destructive.
Northwest of the Dixie Fire in Shasta-Trinity National Forest, hundreds of homes remained threatened by the McFarland and Monument fires, which continued to grow. About a quarter of the McFarland fire was contained and about 3% of the Monument fire was contained.
South of the Dixie blaze, firefighters prevented further growth of the River Blaze, which started near Colfax on Wednesday and destroyed 68 homes.
Smoke from wildfires burning in the western United States continues to trickle into parts of Colorado and Utah, where air quality in many areas has been deemed unhealthy . The air quality in Denver on Sunday was relatively better than on Saturday, but the smoke made the air there and Salt Lake City one of the worst in the world.
California’s fire season is on track to overtake last year’s season, which was the worst fire season in recent state history.
So far this year, more than 6,000 fires have destroyed more than 1,260 square miles (3,260 km²) of land, more than triple the loss for the same period in 2020, according to state figures on fires.
The wildfires raging in California were among 107 large fires burning in 14 states, mostly in the west, where historic drought conditions have left the land parched and ready to be kindled.