The Dixie Fire Is Now the Largest Single Wildfire in California History

The Dixie Fire Is Now the Largest Single Wildfire in California History
Firefighters battling the Dixie Fire clear Highway 89 after a burned tree fell across the roadway in Plumas County. (Photo: Noah Berger, AP)

Many parts of the world are on fire right now, but California is in a league of its own. The Dixie Fire, which is currently roaring through Northern California, has burned through 487,764 acres as of Tuesday morning, making it the second-largest overall fire in state history and the largest single fire on record in California.

Last year’s massive August Complex Fire burned through a jaw-dropping 1,032,648 acres and occupies the top spot on the state’s largest fires list. However, as its name implies, that fire was what’s known as a “complex fire” — a superfire of sorts that formed after several smaller fires met up with each other. But in terms of single fires, the Dixie Fire has now easily blown past the previous record-holder, last fall’s Creek Fire, which destroyed 379,895 acres. The Dixie Fire has also now overtaken other complex fires in the state’s Top 20 largest fires list, including 2018’s Mendocino Complex Fire, which burned 459,123 acres, and last August’s SCU Complex Fire, which burned 396,624 acres.

The Dixie Fire, which began in mid-July, is actively burning through four counties and is currently only 25% contained as of Tuesday morning. This marks a significant expanse of the fire since last week, when it was 35% contained on Thursday. Officials last week said that they expected the fire to be contained by August 20, but pushed that prediction back 10 days on Monday. As of Tuesday, officials have made that date much more open-ended, changing the projected containment date to “to be determined.”

As of Tuesday, the fire has destroyed nearly 900 homes and buildings, as almost 6,000 firefighters work against the blaze. More than 12,000 people in eight different counties are now under evacuation orders as the fire grows larger. Last week, the fire destroyed the historic town of Greenville, burning nearly the entire downtown to ash and prompting panicked evacuation orders from local officials. Firefighters said Monday that they were able to make progress in containing the fire but worried that more hot weather later this week, with temperatures reaching around 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), could hamper efforts on the especially fast-moving fire.

“We’re seeing truly frightening fire behaviour, I don’t know how to overstate that,” said Plumas National Forest Supervisor Chris Carlton during a public briefing last week. “We have a lot of veteran firefighters who have served for 20, 30 years and have never seen behaviour like this, especially day after day, and the conditions we’re in. So we really are in uncharted territory around some of these extreme, large fires and the behaviour we’re seeing.”

Dixie’s entry into the Top 20 list follows a pattern of increasingly larger and more destructive fires as climate change wreaks havoc on the West. Nine of the 10 largest fires on California’s list have happened in the past decade; only three fires out of the top 20 happened before the year 2000.

Like much of the West, California has been rocked by soaring temperatures this summer, creating dangerously hot conditions on top of the state’s megadrought, also supercharged by climate change. Notes on the Dixie Fire’s behaviour posted by officials on Inciweb, a clearinghouse for wildfire information across the U.S., note “historically low” fuel (aka tinder and underbrush) moisture and that the fire is advancing thanks to “very dry, very receptive fuels.” Thanks in part to climate change and consistently hot and dry weather, wildfire season in California is now 105 days longer than it was in the 1970s.

All this dry timber and parched conditions can be especially dangerous when combined with technical malfunction. While authorities are still officially investigating the cause of the fire, utility giant PG&E said in July that Dixie may have been sparked by blown fuses and a pole malfunction from their equipment. Last summer, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 separate counts of manslaughter for its role in sparking the 2018 Camp Fire, California’s deadliest fire on record, after it neglected to inspect its equipment and ignored warnings about the age and condition of its power lines. Earlier this summer, the company reached a settlement with several counties for its role in the 2020 Zogg Fire, which killed four people.

The Dixie Fire is one of 108 fires burning in 15 states that the National Interagency Fire Centre is tracking — six more fires than the agency was tracking last Thursday. (Four new fires were reported by the agency on Tuesday alone.) Together, these fires have burned more than 2.4 million acres. Dixie has jumped past Oregon’s Bootleg Fire as the largest active fire in the United States. The Bootleg Fire is also huge — more than 413,000 acres — but has stayed steady for several days and, firefighters say, is 87% contained.