Firefighters battling flames in Northern California forests girded Monday for new bouts of windy weather, and a utility warned thousands of customers it might cut their electricity to prevent new fires from igniting if gusts damage power lines.
Conditions that suppressed the huge Dixie Fire overnight gave way in the afternoon to gusty winds that pushed flames through an area where drought and summer heat have turned vegetation to tinder.
The fire was only a few miles from Susanville, the county seat of Lassen County with a population of nearly 20,000, and ash fell in the area. Portions of Janesville, a small nearby mountain community, were ordered to evacuate.
Bulldozers had cut fire lines in the path of the northward-trending blaze but “a lot of our lines are getting tested now,” fire spokesman David Janssen said.
Smoke over the fire had slowed its activity earlier in the day but gusty winds arrived in the afternoon, pushing the blaze into extreme activity, torching groups of trees and quickly propelling smaller spot fires that sprang up as much as a couple of miles ahead of the fire front, fire officials said.
“By the time we get there to fight it, it’s not only a quarter-acre, it’s already exploded,” Janssen said.
The National Weather Service issued a fire weather watch through Thursday in the fire area because of winds that could gust to 35 mph (56 kph) at times.
The Dixie Fire has scorched more than 900 square miles (2,331 square kilometers) in the northern Sierra Nevada and southern Cascades since it ignited on July 13 and eventually merged with a smaller blaze called the Fly Fire.
Ongoing damage surveys have counted more than 1,100 buildings destroyed, including 625 homes, and more than 14,000 structures remained threatened. Numerous evacuation orders were in effect.
The small lumber town of Westwood is still under evacuation orders and protective lines were holding but the blaze remained a threat.
”There are still some people staying in there,” Janssen said. “We’re hoping it won’t turn bad in there and we have to change our mission from protecting structures to saving lives … Our biggest concern right now i that people aren’t taking the evacuation seriously.”
Investigations are continuing, but Pacific Gas & Electric has notified utility regulators that the Dixie and Fly fires may have been caused by trees falling into its power lines. The Dixie Fire began near the town of Paradise, which was devastated by a 2018 wildfire ignited by PG&E equipment during strong winds. Eighty-five people died.
On Monday evening, PG&E notified 48,000 customers in parts of 18 Northern California counties that it may have to shut off power Tuesday evening through Wednesday afternoon to prevent winds from knocking down or hurling debris into power lines and sparking new wildfires.
“PG&E meteorologists are tracking a weather system in those areas that could bring sustained winds of up to 40 mph (64 kph), gusting higher in foothills and mountains,” the utility said in a statement.
The Dixie Fire was among 97 large, active wildfires burning in the United States on Monday, the National Interagency Fire Center said. More than 25,000 firefighters, support personnel and management teams were assigned to the blazes.
California was dealing with several other massive fires, including one that started on Saturday southeast of the Dixie Fire in El Dorado County that had grown to about 3.5 square miles (9 square kilometers) and prompted evacuations.
The U.S. Forest Service said last week that it is operating in crisis mode, with more than double the number of firefighters deployed than at the same time a year ago.
The fires were also taking a toll on wildlife.
Near Taylorsville, California, some firefighters on Sunday were monitoring a bear cub who was possibly orphaned in the Dixie Fire. The emaciated cub was awaiting extraction from the fire-scarred area by a wildlife rescue team.
“Generally if you see them with a sow or a mother bear, they’ll stay with the mother bear and run off,” said firefighter Johnnie Macy, who was deployed from Golden, Colorado. “This bear hasn’t done that, so because of that we think that the bear’s orphaned as a result of the fire.”
Climate change has made the U.S. West warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make the weather more extreme and wildfires more destructive, according to scientists.