Thick smoke that held down winds and temperatures cleared Monday from the forestlands of Butte, Plumas and Lassen counties as firefighters battling the second-largest wildfire in state history braced for a return of fire-friendly weather.
The newly clear skies will allow more than two dozen helicopters and two air tankers that have been grounded to fly again and make it safer for ground crews to maneuver.
Winds were not expected to reach the ferocious speeds that helped the Dixie Fire explode in size last week. But they were still a concern for firefighters working in unprecedented conditions to protect thousands of threatened homes.
“The live trees that are out there now have a lower fuel moisture than you would find when you go to a hardware store or a lumberyard and get that piece of lumber that’s kiln dried,” Mark Brunton, operations section chief for Cal Fire, said in an online briefing Sunday morning. “It’s that dry, so it doesn’t take much for any sort of embers, sparks or small flaming front to get that going.”
Fueled by strong winds and bone-dry vegetation, the fire incinerated much of Greenville on Wednesday and Thursday, destroying 370 homes and structures and threatening nearly 14,000 buildings in the northern Sierra Nevada.
The Dixie Fire, named for the road where it started nearly four weeks ago, grew to an area of 725 square miles by Sunday morning and was just 21% contained, according to Cal Fire. It had scorched an area more than twice the size of New York City.
With smoke clearing out on eastern portions of the fire, crews that had been directly attacking the front lines would be forced to retreat and build containment lines farther back, said Dan McKeague, a fire information officer from the U.S. Forest Service. On the plus side, better visibility should allow planes and helicopters to return to the firefight and make it safer for ground crews to maneuver.
“As soon as that air clears, we can fly again,” McKeague said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom surveyed the damage in Greenville Saturday, and said in a video posted to Twitter that firefighters were doing "heroic work," but the state has to do more in active forest management and vegetation management.
"At the end of the day though, we also have to acknowledge this, the dries are getting a lot drier, the heat and hot weather is a lot hotter than it's ever been, the extreme weather conditions, the extreme droughts, are leading to extreme conditions and wildfire challenges the likes of which we've never seen in our history," Newsom said. "We need to acknowledge, just straight up. these are climate-induced wildfires."
Four firefighters were taken to the hospital Friday after being struck by a fallen branch. More than 20 people were initially reported missing, but by Saturday afternoon authorities had contacted all but four of them.
Crews have constructed 465 miles of line around the massive blaze, Deputy Incident Commander Chris Waters said. That’s about the distance from the central California city of Chico to Los Angeles. But officials are only confident that about 20% of the line is secure, he said.
“Every bit of that line needs to be constructed, staffed, mopped up and actually put to bed before we can call this fire fully contained,” Waters said during Saturday evening’s incident briefing.
Erratic winds were predicted again Sunday afternoon. But the weather settled starting Monday.
Damage reports are preliminary because assessment teams can’t get into many areas, officials said.
More Dixie Fire Coverage
The blaze became the largest single (non-complex) fire in California's recorded history, surpassing last year's Creek Fire. It's about half the size of the August Complex, a series of lightning-caused 2020 fires across seven counties that were fought together and that state officials consider California's largest wildfire overall.
The fire’s cause was under investigation. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has said the blaze 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.
Cooler temperatures and higher humidity slowed the spread of the fire, and temperatures topped 90 degrees Fahrenheit instead of the triple-digit highs recorded earlier last week. Dense smoke cover helped, too, shading the area and tamping down the fire growth but also making it harder for crews to maneuver on the ground and in the air.
Heatwaves and historic drought tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight. 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.
About a two-hour drive south from the Dixie Fire, crews had surrounded nearly half of the River Fire that broke out August 4 near the town of Colfax and destroyed 68 homes and other buildings. Evacuation orders for thousands of people in Nevada and Placer counties were lifted Friday. Three people, including a firefighter, were injured, authorities said.
Smoke from the fires blanketed Northern California and western Nevada, causing air quality to deteriorate to very unhealthy and, at times, hazardous levels.
Air quality advisories extended through California's San Joaquin Valley and as far as the San Francisco Bay Area to Denver, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, where residents were urged to keep their windows and doors shut. Denver’s air quality ranked among the worst in the world Saturday afternoon.
California's fire season is on track to surpass last year's season, which was the worst fire season in recent recorded state history.
Since the start of the year, more than 6,000 blazes have destroyed more than 1,260 square miles of land — more than triple the losses for the same period in 2020, according to state fire figures.
California’s raging wildfires were among 107 large fires burning across 14 states, mostly in the West, where historic drought conditions have left lands parched and ripe for ignition.
Associated Press writers Adam Beam in Sacramento, Terry Chea in Colfax, California, Christopher Weber and Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles and Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco contributed to this report.
Stay in touch. Sign up for our daily newsletter.