At least eight people are missing and thousands anxiously waiting at evacuation centers as California’s Dixie Fire, now the nation’s largest wildfire, rips through Northern California communities and threatens to incinerate thousands of homes.
The Plumas County Sheriff’s Office is asking for help finding eight people who have been reported missing during the blaze, according to a late Friday statement. The office found 16 missing people Friday.
The Dixie Fire now spans 679 square miles and is just 21% contained. No injuries or deaths have been reported.
The fire is the third-largest wildfire in California history. But it is the largest single wildfire in the state’s history. The wildfires in 2020 and 2018 holding the top two positions were both complexes.
Fortunately, better weather conditions, including higher humidity and calmer winds, were expected to aid the fight against the blaze Saturday. Temperatures are expected to top 90 degrees, rather than the triple-digit highs earlier in the week.
Cal Fire said it expects full containment by Aug. 20, and the cause of the fire remains under investigation.
As hot, bone-dry, gusty weather hit California on Wednesday and Thursday, the fire raged through Greenville, a Gold Rush-era Sierra Nevada community of about 1,000, incinerating much of the downtown that included wooden buildings more than a century old.
Sheriff Todd Johns, who said he was a lifelong Greenville resident, said more than 100 homes were destroyed in the Greenville and Indian Falls areas.
“To the folks that have lost residences and businesses,” Johns said, “their life is now forever changed. And all I can tell you is I’m sorry.”
‘Catastrophically destroyed’: Dixie Fire wipes out California gold rush town of Greenville
Dan Kearns, a volunteer firefighter, said the winds came up strong Wednesday afternoon and blew the Dixie Fire into town under the type of deadly conditions that have in recent years caused widespread damage in California communities, including Paradise, Redding and Shasta County.
“I’m not going to say total (destruction) because not every structure is gone. But the town is catastrophically destroyed,” Kearns said.
No deaths or injuries were reported, but the fire threatens more than 10,000 homes.
Thousands of residents of the Northern California communities affected by the Dixie Fire have fled their homes. Some evacuated early and have spent weeks away from their homes. Others decided to stick it out and wait until the flames were at their doorstep.
Jennifer Gonzales knew it was time to go as she watched the flames creep up the building next to her.
Gonzales said she and her partner, who owned Greenville lodge, grabbed essential items and let their hotel burn behind them.
“We have the largest building in town and the best view so we could go up and see everything catching on fire,” Gonzales said. “There were embers and flames everywhere by the time we left.”
The blaze has also led to smoke and ash settling in surrounding areas, reducing air quality to unhealthy levels. By Friday morning, the air quality index remained at very unhealthy levels in the Reno-Sparks area as people with heart or lung issues, older adults, children and teens were advised to avoid outdoor physical activity and stay indoors as much as possible.
Tony Fuentes, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno, said he expect some improvement Saturday but said smoke should linger in the area over the weekend and into next week.
The cause of the blaze is under investigation, but Pacific Gas & Electric said in two separate reports to the California Public Utilities Commission that it may have been sparked when a tree fell on one of its power lines.
The questions around Dixie’s origin are only the latest in a string of disasters that has left the utility in bankruptcy and led to its criminal prosecution.
PG&E equipment was determined to be at fault for starting the 2018 Camp Fire, which destroyed most of the Butte County community of Paradise and killed 85 people.
Earlier this year, Shasta and Tehama counties agreed to a $12 million settlement with PG&E to recover costs associated with last year’s deadly Zogg Fire after the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection blamed the utility’s equipment for causing the fire.
A red sky and a road on fire: Man fleeing California wildfire saw no escape and prepared to die
Six of seven of the largest wildfires in California history have occurred during or since 2020, AccuWeather said. Compared to last year, California has experienced a 151% increase in the amount of acres burned. Fire season, which typically runs into October, is far from over.
Heat waves and drought tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight in America’s West. Scientists say climate change has made the region much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
Contributing: The Associated Press; David Benda and Matt Brannon, The Redding Record Searchlight; David Benda, Matt Brannon, Jessica Skropanic, Terell Wilkins and Richard Bednarski, The Reno Gazette-Journal