The biggest wildfire in the country, California’s Dixie Fire, has become the second-largest blaze in the state’s history since it started burning less than a month ago. Fueled by strong winds and dry conditions, the fire has scorched more than 460,000 acres throughout northeast California.
“The vegetation is extremely dry, extremely receptive to fire,” Edwin Zuniga, a CalFire spokesperson tells Alex Wigglesworth of the Los Angeles Times. “Any little spark can establish a fire and make a run.”
The fire’s containment dropped from 35 to 21 percent contained last weekend. Since it ignited on July 13, the Dixie Fire has destroyed more than 600 structures and leveled communities, including the historic mining town of Greenville, about 160 miles north of Sacramento, reports the New York Times. The blaze has scorched 675 square miles of land, covering an area more than twice the size of New York City. Several people are missing and firefighters have been injured, though no deaths have been attributed to the fire.
“We knew we didn’t get enough rainfall and fires could happen, but we didn’t expect a monster like this,” Greenville resident Kesia Studebaker tells USA Today’s John Bacon.
The Dixie Fire is second only to 2020’s August Complex Fire, which burned around 1 million acres over nearly a year. Of the state’s 20 biggest blazes, almost all have occurred in the past two decades, according to CalFire.
The thick blanket of smoke from the wildfire has also threatened Californians’ health and complicated aerial firefighting methods. Residents are encouraged to wear masks and avoid going outside to minimize smoke inhalation, which has fine particulate matter that can damage lung tissue and cause a host of health issues. Firefighters have welcomed better visibility in recent days, but they are bracing for rising temperatures later in the week, reports the New York Times.
The fire’s cause is still under investigation, though it may have started when a tree fell on a powerline near Feather River Canyon, according to Pacific Gas and Electric Co. A federal judge has ordered the company to provide details about the indecent and equipment by August 16. The Dixie Fire has been particularly challenging for who suffered through the nearby Camp Fire in 2018.
"It really is tough on people," Steve Crowder, mayor of Paradise, California, tells Kirk Siegler of NPR. "It just brings back all kinds of memories."
In addition to abnormally dry conditions and strong winds, the fire is fueled by decades of fire suppression. For much of the 20th century, government-led forest services tried to stamp out blazes as quickly as possible, halting natural cycles of burning and regrowth, ignoring indigenous land management techniques like controlled burns. As a result, forests in the west grew into overloaded tinderboxes.
Today, western forest management techniques are adopting controlled burns to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires like Dixie. But as human-caused climate change creates longer, hotter summers, officials fear more record-breaking fires are on the horizon.