Overwhelmed firefighters battle to save California communities, assess mass destruction
Another day of dangerous winds is on tap as the Dixie fire continues to grow and the River fire burns homes north of Sacramento.
Powerful winds and dry conditions caused fires in Northern California to explode, with the massive Dixie fire sweeping into the town of Greenville and destroying swaths of the downtown area.
Another day of winds is on tap for the region Thursday, with the National Weather Service issuing a red flag warning for the mountain areas of northeast California.
The Dixie fire, already the eighth largest in California history, devastated the Plumas County town of Greenville on Wednesday afternoon.
Social media posts show significant destruction in Greenville’s downtown, with rows of buildings burning as well as cars. The total number of buildings lost is unclear, but fire officials said they were battling the blaze inside the town for hours. Throughout the day, people fled as the fire approached.
“It sounds like a war zone out there,” resident Rhonda Reames told ABC 10, saying she watched as fire swept through trees and caused propane tanks to explode.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) shared photos of buildings burning on Main Street that his staff took. “These pictures crush my heart,” he said.
“We did everything we could,” fire spokesman Mitch Matlow said. “Sometimes it’s just not enough.”
The Dixie fire broke out three weeks ago near a power station in Feather River Canyon. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. said in a report that its equipment might have sparked the blaze.
The fire in Butte and Plumas counties had exploded to 274,139 acres, making it the eighth largest wildfire in California’s recorded history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It is 35% contained.
At least 67 structures have been destroyed, with more than 12,000 under threat, according to the latest incident report.
A red flag warning went into effect Wednesday for the fire area and much of the region, when a cold, dry front was expected to pass through, according to Ryan Walbrun, incident meteorologist for the Dixie fire. The warning will last through 8 p.m. Thursday.
“It’s going to set up a critical fire weather pattern,” Walbrun said during an incident update.
Wind gusts are expected to hit 30 to 40 mph, “pushing up on the fire itself,” Walbrun said. Those winds will meet single-digit humidity levels, considered critically dry for the area, and temperatures in the 80s and 90s.
A pocket of unburned fuels along the northern end of the fire ignited Monday, said Mike Wink, operations section chief for Cal Fire’s Incident Management Team 1, also focused on the west zone.
Greenville, with a population of 1,000, is located in a remote mountain area in Plumas County. Much of the town burned during a fire in 1881, according to a local history, but quickly rebuilt.
“It’s just been devastating,” one Greenville resident told ABC10 News, fighting back tears, on Wednesday. “It’s the emotional strain. It’s gotten to everybody.”
Dawn Garofalo fled with a dog and two horses from a friend’s property near Greenville, and watched the soaring cloud grow from the west side of Lake Almanor.
“There’s only one way in and one way out,” she told the Associated Press “I didn’t want to be stuck up there if the fire came through.”
Meanwhile, a new wildfire that began Wednesday near Colfax, north of Sacramento, has burned through 1,400 acres and started damaging homes, according to state and local officials.
Cal Fire said the River fire was burning near Milk Ranch Road and Bear River Campground Road north of Applegate in Placer and Nevada counties — jumping the Bear River between the two — and estimated it had damaged or destroyed 35 to 40 structures.
An additional 4,000 structures were threatened, including 2,000 in Colfax, officials said.
The fire began just as winds kicked up in the region, officials said. Like the rest of the state, the area is in severe drought, setting the conditions for rapid fire growth — and the main body of the fire followed spot fires growing quickly in number after the initial flames began.
Officials said the fire was 0% contained as of Wednesday night.
The Placer County sheriff-coroner-marshal’s office announced evacuations in Colfax, with 2,400 people falling under the order. Officials urged residents in areas under evacuation orders not to delay.
Nevada County officials said about 4,200 people were under either evacuation orders or warnings.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.