What Caused The Dixie Fire?
BREAKING NEWS: PG&E equipment is blamed for starting the Dixie Fire in Northern California.
California fire investigators pinned the blame for the Dixie Fire — the second-largest blaze in the state’s history — on equipment owned by Pacific Gas & Electric and referred the case to prosecutors.
The Dixie Fire was an enormous wildfire in Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Shasta, and Tehama Counties, California. It is named after the creek near where it started. The fire began in the Feather River Canyon near Cresta Dam on July 13, 2021, and burned 963,309 acres (389,837 ha) before being 100% contained on October 25, 2021. It was the largest non-complex wildfire in the state’s history, and the second-largest overall. It was the first fire known to have burned across the crest of the Sierra Nevada. The fire damaged or destroyed several small towns, including Greenville on August 4 and Canyondam on August 5.
By July 23, it had become the largest wildfire of the 2021 California fire season; by August 6, it had grown to become the largest single (i.e. non-complex) wildfire in the state’s history, and the second-largest wildfire overall (after the August Complex fire of 2020), bigger than the state of Rhode Island. It was the first fire known to have burned across the crest of the Sierra Nevada (followed by the Caldor Fire a few days later).
Smoke from the Dixie Fire caused unhealthy air quality across the Western United States, including states as far east as Utah and Colorado.
The Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) has stated that it believes the fire may have been started by its equipment, sparking the fire close to where the 2018 Camp Fire originated. A minor power outage was detected on the morning of July 13, and a PG&E maintenance worker arrived to find a fallen tree on a live power line which had started a small brush fire. Cal Fire sent aircraft to drop water on the fire while ground crews tried to reach the site, but were delayed by poor roads. An illegal drone appeared over the fire and forced a premature halt to aircraft operations, which may have “played a major part in the blaze burning out of control after darkness fell.”
Over the next few days, the fire progressed rapidly northeast along the Feather River canyon, forcing the closure of Highway 70, the Union Pacific Railroad’s Feather River Route, and nearby areas of the Plumas National Forest and Lassen National Forest. By July 19 it had burned 40,500 acres; over the next two days, the fire more than doubled in size to 85,000 acres, driven by high winds. As of July 21, the fire was 15 percent contained, with nearly 4,000 firefighters and numerous aircraft assigned to the incident.
By July 23, flames had traveled north almost to Highway 89 and Lake Almanor, after jumping over Butt Valley Reservoir. On the east flank, the fire was advancing towards Bucks Lake and Indian Valley, and on the west it was burning towards Butte Meadows. It had grown to 167,430 acres with 18% containment. Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for Plumas, Butte, Lassen and Alpine counties due to the Dixie Fire and other fires burning in the area.
On July 24 the fire expanded rapidly east, burning through Paxton and then Indian Falls, destroying around a dozen structures. Firefighters successfully kept the fire north of Bucks Lake, while flames approached the Indian Valley communities of Crescent Mills, Greenville and Taylorsville on the east. Later that night it merged with the smaller Fly Fire, which had started the previous day north of Quincy and burned over 4,300 acres (1,700 ha). The Dixie fire grew to 181,289 acres with 19 percent containment.
On July 30 the fire was at 240,595 acres, becoming the 11th largest wildfire in California history, having grown 20,000 acres in a single day. However, much of the growth was due to islands of unburned vegetation within the fire perimeter, as well as back burning operations to protect homes in Butte Meadows and Jonesville. Firefighters also contained the eastward spread of the fire with back burning from Mount Hough down to Quincy.
At the start of August, the fire was most active on the north flank, having split into two main branches, with one burning up the western shore of Lake Almanor, and the other burning northeast toward Indian Valley. Fire activity was greatly decreased along the south side from Bucks Lake to Quincy, as well as the west side around Butte Meadows. Beginning on August 3, after several days of calmer weather, a major wind event drove the fire up the west shore of Lake Almanor, threatening Chester and other nearby communities. Firefighting efforts were concentrated on protecting the town, while the fire front continued sweeping north into Lassen County, the Lassen National Forest and the eastern side of Lassen Volcanic National Park.
On the evening of August 4, the northeast flank of the fire jumped containment lines at Indian Valley and burned through the town of Greenville. An estimated 75 percent of structures in Greenville were destroyed, including much of the downtown and numerous nearby homes. The firestorm was compared to “a huge tornado” and took less than half an hour to destroy the town before leaping to the other side of Indian Valley and continuing northeast, threatening Westwood. The whole Dixie Fire grew to over 320,000 acres, an increase of 50,000 acres in the previous two days, and was 35 percent contained. It became the sixth largest wildfire in California history, surpassing the North Complex that burned nearby in 2020.
On August 5, the fire burned much of Canyondam as it approached the eastern shore of Lake Almanor. By the morning of August 8, the fire had grown to 463,477 acres, surpassing the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire to become the second largest fire in the state’s history, with containment falling to 21%. Starting on August 13 increased winds pushed flames primarily to the east. The northern section of the fire expanded around the north side of Lake Almanor, heading east and south and threatening Westwood. The fire’s eastern section, having burned past Indian Valley, continued to race east towards Antelope Lake.
In the evening of August 16, winds of up to 30 mph (48 kmh) drove the fire over the Diamond Mountains and into the Honey Lake Valley. This put areas south of Johnstonville under mandatory evacuation warning, including the town of Janesville. A spot fire started on US 395 named the Farm Fire. In Lassen National Park, the area burned within the park had doubled to 22,000 acres, and firefighters were building line to protect Manzanita Lake and Old Station areas.
On August 18 the Dixie Fire merged with the Morgan Fire, which had been started by lightning August 12 near the south entrance of Lassen National Park. In addition to burning north into the park, the Morgan Fire had threatened the communities of Mineral and Mill Creek just to the south. The Morgan and Dixie fires were joined by a backfire set in order to reduce fuels adjacent to the two towns. By the end of the day, the Dixie Fire had grown to over 635,000 acres, an increase of more than 80,000 acres since August 15, with containment at 33 percent.
By August 22 the Dixie Fire approached Milford but crews were able to protect the structures and containment rose to 37%, the highest since the fire began. Growth of the fire slowed overnight due to increased humidity but overall weather conditions remain challenging.
The fire continued burning in the two management zones, the East Zone and West Zone. The eastern zone was mostly Plumas National Forest and the western zone was mostly Lassen Volcanic National Park and Lassen National Forest. The eastern zone extended to the escarpment south of Milford, where firefighters continued efforts to protect the town. By September 6, containment had reached 57%, but extreme fire activity continued and strong winds pushed the fire down off the escarpment to containment lines at the base of the slope. By September 10, fire crews were “mopping up” heat near the fire’s edge south of Milford. in the West Zone, winds pushed the fire to the northeast, threatening Hat Creek, and Old Station. Old Station was put under evacuation orders on September 8, and by the 10th, the fire had jumped containment lines and crossed Highway 44. Fire crews began using BNSF Railway’s fire train, which can deliver 30,000 gallons of water per load to fill water tenders. On September 9, the weather became more favorable, especially in the West Zone, with calm winds, cooler temperatures down into the 30s overnight, up to a quarter inch of rain, and rising humidity resulting in minimal fire activity. Favorable conditions were expected to continue throughout the week. As of September 13, the few remaining areas of persistent heat and flames were all within the interior of the burned area, and containment had increased to 86% by September 16. As of 18 September, fire crews continued to monitor, patrol, and respond to hotspots within the fire. Weather conditions deteriorated leading to potential increase in fire activity due to the increased winds. Rain and work by firefighters on 19 September kept fire activity within the existing perimeter and the increase in reported acreage reflected vegetation burned within that perimeter. On 22 September, containment reached 95% and firefighters successfully contained the last portion of uncontained fire in the Devil’s Punchbowl area of the East Zone. On 1 October, Devil’s Punchbowl was devoid of heat based on infrared data and Inciweb indicated a 94% overall containment for the Dixie Fire (East and West Zone).
Casualties and damage
As of September 19, the fire had destroyed or damaged at least 1,329 structures, of which at at least 600 were residential, with 14,000 more threatened. In downtown Greenville the fire destroyed multiple historic buildings, many dating back to the 19th-Century California Gold Rush. In Lassen National Park, the fire destroyed the Mount Harkness Fire Lookout and possibly other historic facilities within the park.
Three firefighters have been injured on the Dixie fire. One fatality has been reported: a firefighter died due to an illness unrelated to suppression efforts. As of August 6, there were eight civilians reported missing in the area of Greenville, Crescent Mills and Chester.
On July 21, evacuation orders were issued for Butte Meadows in northeast Butte County and the west shore of Lake Almanor in Plumas County, while the east shore of Almanor and the town of Chester were under an evacuation warning. By July 24 evacuation orders were extended to Greenville, Crescent Mills, Taylorsville, and other communities along the Feather River canyons east and west of the fire, as well as Bucks Lake, Meadow Valley and parts of Quincy. As of July 25, about 7,400 people in Plumas County and 100 people in Butte County had been evacuated.
On August 3, Chester, Lake Almanor Peninsula and Hamilton Branch were evacuated as the fire advanced north towards Lassen National Park, bringing the total number of people evacuated to 26,500. On August 4 evacuation orders were issued in southwest Lassen County, particularly the areas south of Highway 44 and Mountain Meadows Reservoir, and evacuation warnings for Westwood and Pine Town.
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