The Dixie Fire is raging out of control in Northern California’s Plumas and Butte counties. After merging with a smaller blaze known as the Fly Fire over the weekend, its flames continued to spread, devastating nearly 200,000 acres as of Monday morning. It’s now the largest fire in California and is among the more than 86 large wildfires burning across 12 states, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center.
The fire ignited on July 13, and has since forced more than 16,000 people to evacuate their homes. It’s also prompted evacuation orders in the nearby Tehama County. The flames have already burned down at least 23 buildings while threatening more than 10,000 residences.
The Dixie Fire has already burned over an area the size of New York City, but it’s likely to spread further in the coming days. A state of emergency has been in effect since Friday, and 5,461 firefighters have been deployed to contain the inferno. None have been injured so far. Containment is at 21%, but the flames could spread in the coming days as hot and gusty conditions roar into Northern California.
On Saturday night, the fire ripped through the small town of Indian Falls, burning down the forested area which has been dried out by extreme drought. By Sunday morning, the Dixie Fire also burned across highways 70 and 89.
Though it’s still getting larger, the Dixie Fire’s rate of growth slowed on Sunday. The reason is a small comfort, though. Experts said the thick plumes of smoke it’s generating cooled the area down. That helped the firefighters working against the blaze to do their job.
“The conditions on the ground Sunday were favorable, and that allowed for the fire crews on the ground to bring out ... bulldozers and brush removal equipment,” Tony McHale, fire captain at the Ventura County Fire Department, said. “The terrain is very challenging, it’s very hazardous work. But we’ve been able to get a lot of work done.”
But the smoke is also choking residents near the blaze, creating hazardous air quality as far east as Reno, nearly 100 miles (162 kilometers) away. But winds are expected to change this week, clearing out some haze but allowing flames to run wild. Rising temperatures and potential lightning storms could make matters on the ground worse and even ignite new fires that will tax firefighters even further.
“Our tactics and strategies are all determined by the conditions. [We will] have to see what happens,” said McHale.
On Thursday, the Dixie Fire became California’s second megafire—a classification for fires of at least 100,000 acres—of the season following the Beckwourth Complex which crossed the threshold earlier this month. The flames burned so intensely that they created a firenado earlier this month.
The West as a whole is also in trouble, though. Across the border in Oregon, the Bootleg Fire remains the largest in the U.S. at 409,611 acres as of Monday. Fires in Canada are also spreading largely uncontrolled. Last week, the U.S. Forest Service said they expect their budget and firefighting resources to run out before the season even hits its peak. The intensity of fires has sent smoke streaming across large portions of North America.
There’s no question that the climate crisis is exacerbating hot and dry conditions in California, and thereby making fire seasons worse. An analysis by Climate Central has found that wildfire season is now 105 days longer than it was in the 1970s. Much of that can be attributed to rising heat, which is also contributing to a megadrought. These conditions are drying out grassland and forests, and priming them to burn in explosive wildfires. Decades of fire suppression have made matters worse as well.
For decades, scientists have warned that world leaders must enact urgent, transformative climate policy or else usher in hotter temperatures, worse heat waves, and terrifying wildfires. Clearly, the best time to stop using fossil fuels and otherwise curb our greenhouse gas emissions was years ago. But the second best time is right now.