LOS ANGELES – A massive wildfire in California continued its destructive trek through the northern reaches of the state Tuesday, fueled by bone-dry conditions and fierce winds that have allowed the blaze to raze almost 900 structures and take out much of a historic Gold Rush town.
Firefighters made progress on the more than 482,000 acre blaze Monday and have it about 25% contained, but high pressure building over the western United States is posing a new risk this week. Forecasters say sweltering temperatures — possibly hitting triple-digit highs — will further dry out the area. Forecasts also show more strong afternoon winds, another key ingredient that could intensify the blaze.
So far, the fire has scorched an area more than twice the size of New York City. Only the million-acre August Complex from a year ago has burned through more land in California. That fire was a compilation of more than 30 fires ignited by lightning strikes.
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in the northern counties of Shasta, Tehama and Trinity due to the McFarland, Monument and Dixie fires.
Those fires combined with three others raging in the region, Antelope, Nelson and McCash, have burned through more than a half a million acres and forced thousands from their homes. More than 650,000 acres continues to burn.
The governor’s declaration unlocks state funding to provide resources to communities in need. The move came days after Newsom surveyed damage from the Dixie Fire and met with elected officials in Greenville, a Gold Rush-era town that was mostly destroyed by the fire.
“These are climate-induced wildfires and we have to acknowledge that we have the capacity in not just the state but in this country to solve this,” Newsom said on CNN.
On Sunday, the Dixie Fire surpassed the Mendocino Complex, which in 2018 burned 459,123 acres in Colusa, Lake, Mendocino and Glenn counties, to become the state’s second largest fire in recorded history.
The blaze has been burning since July 13 and a cause is being investigated. Pacific Gas & Electric has said it may have been sparked when a tree fell on one of its power lines. A federal judge ordered PG&E on Friday to give details by Aug. 16 about the equipment and vegetation where the fire started.
So far, the Dixie Fire has destroyed at least 893 structures and more than 16,000 structures are still in danger of being destroyed, fire officials said.
Four firefighters were taken to the hospital Friday after being struck by a fallen branch. More than 30 people were initially reported missing, but by Monday the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office had accounted for all of them.
California’s raging wildfires are among some 100 large blazes burning across 15 states, mostly in the West, where historic drought conditions have left lands parched and ripe for ignition.
Heat waves and historic drought tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight in the American West. Scientists have said climate change has made the region much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make the weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive. The fires across the West come as parts of Europe are also fighting large blazes spurred by bone-dry conditions.
California’s fire season is on track to surpass last year’s season, which was the worst fire season in recent recorded state history.
“Compared to this same time last year, we have seen an astounding 151% increase in acres burned across California and it is only August,” Cal Fire said last Thursday.
An ashy haze has continued to hang over large stretches of the region as many evacuees wonder where they will go from here.
Angela Rutledge has lived for two years in Janesville, a small community on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. She didn’t leave last year when asked to evacuate for the Sheep Fire. This year, she is.
She and her husband have already packed suitcases of clothes and important documents. Without a trailer, she will have to leave her goat, three pigs and 15 chickens behind.
“I’m very nervous,” she said.
The fire and groups of evacuees have transformed the center of Susanville, another sleepy Sierra Nevada town of about 15,000 people. Fire engines from cities as far away as Huntington Beach and Los Angeles crowd the highway. RV’s camped at Walmart, Subway and any parking lot with an open space.
As of Sunday night, 275 people were sheltered at Susanville’s two emergency shelters, according to Lassen County Administrator Richard Egan.
“We’re doing whatever we can to provide areas for people to go to in this time,” he said.
About a dozen people are waiting for a spot at an RV park in the area. Scott Enos and his mom, Susan, are among them.
The pair, who live in nearby Chester, Calif., are camped at the Walmart parking lot in the city with their three cats and two dogs. Her family home in Greenville burned last week, and “that was a big hit,” she said.
She hopes a site opens up at the RV park so she, her son and pets, some of whom are blind and diabetic, can be more comfortable.
Until a spot opens, she is grateful for services from the Red Cross and Salvation Army. She and her son have been camped at Walmart for about a week, and they’ve had deliveries of pet food, watermelon, enchiladas and pizza.
“They’ve really stepped up,” she said.
Contributing: Amy Alonzo of Reno Gazette Journal; David Benda, Mike Chapman, Jessica Skropanic and Matt Brannon of the Redding Record Searchlight; Associated Press