California's Dixie Fire is 'third largest' in state's history

People living in the scenic forestlands of Northern California are facing a weekend of fear as bushfires threaten to reduce thousands of homes to ashes

Northern California's bushfire, nicknamed the Dixie Fire, is the third largest in the state's history and threatens more than 10,000 buildings as it burns through Sierra Nevada, state authorities said on Saturday.

It used to be a bunch of cool stuff, and now it’s just trash. You can’t fix it
Local resident Dale Huber

Wind-driven flames destroyed dozens of homes and most of Greenville's downtown area on Wednesday and Thursday. They heavily damaged Canyondam, a hamlet of 40 people.

The fire reached Chester, but crews managed to protect homes and businesses there, officials said.

Charlene Mays kept her petrol station in Chester open as long as she could, telling weary firefighters not to apologise for the trail of ashes their boots left on the floor. But when the small town on the north-west shore of Lake Almanor lost power, Ms Mays decided it was time for her to leave.

She ran home for a box of valuables, including her husband's class ring and some jewellery. The smoke was so thick it was hard to breathe. Chunks of ash broke apart as they hit the ground, making a sound like broken glass.

That was on Thursday. Since then, Ms Mays has been living in the car park of Lassen College in Susanville. Her husband stayed behind to maintain some water tanks firefighters were using.

Her home was standing on Friday, but her fate was bound with the direction of the wind. She was not alone.

“I’ve got probably 30 of my regular customers right here,” she said.

The Dixie Fire, named after the road where it started, now spans an area of 1,760 square kilometres and was 21 per cent contained. No injuries or deaths were reported.

At the fire site, temperatures were expected to top 32º Celsius, but no 64 kilometre an hour gusts and triple-digit highs recorded last week.

Still, the blaze and its neighbouring fires, within a couple hundred miles of each other, posed an ongoing threat.

Climate crisis

Heatwaves and historic drought tied to climate change have made bushfires harder to fight in the American West. Scientists said climate change has made the region much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and fires more frequent and destructive.

Near Klamath National Forest, firefighters kept an eye on small communities that were ordered to be evacuated in the path of the Antelope Fire, which had thrown up flames of 30 metres high as it blackened bone-dry grass, brush and timber. It was 20 per cent contained.

Further north-west, about 500 homes scattered in and around Shasta-Trinity National Forest remained threatened by the Monument Fire and others by the McFarland Fire, both started by lightning storms last week, fire officials said.

About a two-hour drive south from the Dixie Fire, crews had surrounded about a third of the River Fire that broke out on Wednesday near the town of Colfax and destroyed about 90 homes and other buildings. Evacuation orders for Nevada and Placer counties were lifted on Friday. Three people, including a fireman, were injured, authorities said.

Dale Huber walked into the fire zone on Friday to check on his brother’s home, which was burnt to rubble.

“It used to be a bunch of cool stuff, and now it’s just trash,” Mr Huber said. “You can’t fix it. We can tear it out and start over again or run away. I think he’s decided he wants to rebuild here.”

Smoke from the fires blanketed central California and western Nevada, causing air quality to deteriorate to dangerous levels. Air quality advisory messages extended through the San Joaquin Valley and as far west as the San Francisco Bay Area, where residents were urged to keep their windows and doors shut.

California is on track to surpass last year, which had the worst fire season in recent recorded state history. Since the start of the year, more than 6,000 blazes have destroyed more than 3,260 square kilometres of land – more than triple the losses for the same period in 2020, state fire data said.

California’s raging bushfires were among more than 100 large, active fires burning across 14 states, mostly in the West where historic drought conditions have left lands parched and ripe for ignition.

Updated: August 7th 2021, 3:35 PM