The Dixie Fire Destroys an Entire California Town as Danger Continues

The Dixie Fire Destroys an Entire California Town as Danger Continues
Flames consume a home on Highway 89. (Photo: Noah Berger, AP)

A town in Northern California has been nearly completely destroyed after the Dixie Fire charged through late Wednesday. The state’s largest wildfire tore through the downtown, destroying historic buildings and prompting panicked evacuations in a dramatic scene of destruction.

“If you are still in the Greenville area, you are in imminent danger and you MUST leave now!!” the Plumas County Sheriff’s office wrote on Facebook Wednesday evening. “If you remain, emergency responders may not be able to assist you.”

The fire is one of dozens burning across the West in what has been a fire season from hell. And the worst is likely still ahead for California.

‘We Are Trying to Get People Out of Here’

Photo: Noah Berger, APPhoto: Noah Berger, AP

Residents in the town of Greenville, which is about 240 kilometres north of Sacramento, were placed under mandatory evacuation orders on Monday. But Jake Cagle, an operations section chief for California Incident Management, said in an online fire briefing on Wednesday evening that there were “a lot of folks in Greenville who unfortunately did not evacuate” before then. The sheriff office’s Facebook warning was posted just a few hours before Cagle’s briefing.

“We can’t protect structures because we are trying to get people out of here,” Cagle said.

‘Please Save Our House’

The Way Station bar burns as the Dixie Fire tears through Greenville. (Photo: Noah Berger, AP)The Way Station bar burns as the Dixie Fire tears through Greenville. (Photo: Noah Berger, AP)

The fire arrived with a quickness, driven by fierce winds and hot, dry weather. Dramatic photos posted to social media by local news outlets and others show an almost apocalyptic scene of “near total loss” in Greenville.

“I’m so sorry for the town of Greenville,” the account @SoCalFire wrote on Twitter as a caption to a video showing smoky skies and the town’s library and other buildings on the main drag going up in flames. While officials haven’t begun tallying all the damage in the town yet, it’s likely to be catastrophic. Some of the buildings burned are more than a century old; the town dates back to the Gold Rush of the late 1840s and early 1850s.

On the sheriff’s update on Facebook, dozens of residents and people with family and friends in the area posted concerns, prayers, and questions about the status of their homes or loved ones.

“Is lower Williams valley road gone?” one person asked.

“Please save our house,” another user wrote, before giving their address.

‘We Did Everything We Could’

Operations Chief Jay Walter passes the historic Sierra Lodge in Greenville. (Photo: Noah Berger, AP)Operations Chief Jay Walter passes the historic Sierra Lodge in Greenville. (Photo: Noah Berger, AP)

The Dixie Fire, California’s largest wildfire this season, is currently only 35% contained and has burned more than 322,500 acres since it began in mid-July. Before it hit Greenville, it had destroyed 45 homes and buildings. Firefighters thought that they had protected Greenville earlier this week. But the extreme fire weather on Wednesday caused the fire to grow by 24,000 acres and maraud over defences. The neighbouring town of Chester was also ordered to evacuate.

The National Interagency Fire Centre noted that three other fires in California also displayed “extreme” behaviour Wednesday, with the Monument and Antelope Fires gaining more than 8,000 acres, and the McFarland Fire growing by 5,100 acres.

“We did everything we could,” fire spokesman Mitch Matlow told the AP of Greenville. “Sometimes it’s just not enough.”

Red Flag Warnings Are in Place Again

A firefighter saves an American flag as flames consume a home during the Dixie fire in Greenville, California. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP, Getty Images)A firefighter saves an American flag as flames consume a home during the Dixie fire in Greenville, California. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP, Getty Images)

There are 4,785 firefighters and support personnel working to contain the blaze. But despite the all-out effort to combat the Dixie Fire, the danger for other communities in the region continues on Thursday. The fire update on Inciweb, a clearinghouse for wildfire information across the U.S., warned that overnight conditions didn’t improve with humidity staying low. That allowed the Dixie Fire to continue spreading, and it could be another explosive day on Thursday.

“Today hot, dry and windy conditions are predicted with a Red Flag warning in effect at 1 pm until Thursday at 8 pm.,” the Inciweb update noted on Thursday morning. “Active fire behaviour is expected with strong, gusty winds.”

‘Not the Normal Fires Anymore’

A street sign stands in central Greenville. (Photo: Noah Berger, AP)A street sign stands in central Greenville. (Photo: Noah Berger, AP)

As of Thursday morning, the Dixie Fire is one of 100 fires blazing across the U.S. Combined, fires have already burned almost 1,948,000 acres across 14 states. The National Interagency Fire Centre said that nine new large fires were reported on Wednesday alone, in Washington, California, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Record-hot temperatures across the West as well as an ongoing and devastating drought — both supercharged by climate change — are making matters worse.

​​“These are not the normal fires anymore,” Cagle said in his briefing. “It’s just intense fire behaviour, and it’s not what we’re used to.”

Shades of Past Years

A structure burns as flames from the Dixie Fire tears through downtown Greenville, California. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP, Getty Images)A structure burns as flames from the Dixie Fire tears through downtown Greenville, California. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP, Getty Images)

Entire towns and neighbourhoods burning down is unfortunately an increasingly common occurrence. In 2017, fires raged through Santa Rosa, California. Nearly the entire town of Paradise burned down in 2018 during the deadly Camp Fire while the Carr Fire tore through entire neighbourhoods in Redding. Last year saw multiple towns largely incinerated in Oregon’s severe wildfire season as well.

Climate Change Is Among the Reasons for the Danger

Businesses burn as the Dixie Fire tears through downtown Greenville, California. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP, Getty Images)Businesses burn as the Dixie Fire tears through downtown Greenville, California. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP, Getty Images)

The climate crisis has made large, destructive fires more common by bumping up the mercury. Wildfire season has also grown 105 days longer as hot, dry conditions make forests more flammable.

California’s worst fires usually occur in the autumn, fanned by the Santa Ana and Diablo Winds. But as this fire season and last August’s lightning-induced firestorm show, the risk is expanding into the summer months as well.

That risk is compounded by two other trends of the past century. Decades of forest mismanagement and fire suppression mean there’s more fuel that’s ready to ignite at a moment’s notice. Humans have also turned the woods into a danger zone through development. Between 1990 and 2010 alone, 13.4 million new homes were built in what’s known as the wildland-urban interface.

Communities have settled in harm’s way, right as climate change and heavy fuel loads conspire to make fires more explosive. Infrastructure in forests, notably aboveground power lines, are also igniting an increasing number of fires. (Other human activities are also responsible for fires.)

Some utilities, including notorious fire-starter PG&E, have said they’ll undertake the massive project to bury more power lines. Federal agencies have also started to come around to more managed burns to prevent huge fires. But there are also important — and sometimes uncomfortable — questions around if communities that burn down should rebuild and how other towns in the danger zone should adapt.