Surging wildfire tears through northern California town and threatens others

Critically dangerous fire weather was forecast across northern California from Tuesday afternoon into Wednesday evening, threatening to intensify several large blazes and increasing the risk of new ones, as a small rural town in the Sierra Nevada was ravaged by a fire that grew with devastating speed.

The Caldor fire, which erupted over the weekend, exploded in size on Tuesday and ran through the town of Grizzly Flats, destroying many buildings and forcing residents to leave. Two were injured. Officials estimated that the blaze had blown through 30,000 acres – up from 6,500 acres reported by the California department of forestry and fire protection (Cal Fire) earlier that day.

“The fire has grown. It is spreading quickly,” said Chris Vestal, a public information officer on the fire, noting that it had grown so quickly that it was outpacing the department’s ability to document it.

The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings in the region, extending across several western states, noting the potential for rapid spread of fire with a perilous trifecta of low humidity, extremely dry vegetation, and wind gusts of up to 35mph.

On Tuesday evening, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) began shutting off power to about 51,000 customers in 18 northern California counties. The utility said it was starting the shutoffs as a precaution, to prevent gusting winds from damaging power lines and sparking blazes.

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued in several areas and close to 17,000 people have now been forced to leave their homes, according to the California office of emergency services.

The Caldor fire, whipped by the winds, exhibited extreme behavior as it tore through small mountain towns in El Dorado county, including Grizzly Flats, where structures were lost and two civilians were injured, officials reported. Streets were littered with downed power lines and poles and few homes were left standing, the Associated Press reported. Local resident Derek Shaves said: “It’s a pile of ash.”

More than 2,500 people were under evacuation orders and more communities could be affected through Tuesday night. “From a resource standpoint, we are literally running as fast as we can in all aspects,” Vestal said.

By midday on Tuesday, lines of cars inched along a one-lane road out of Pollock Pines, a community currently in the fire’s path.

People throughout the region were offering assistance to evacuees, including the four-legged kind. Susan Collins of Placerville used her horse trailer to help move two horses Tuesday after offering help on an El Dorado county Facebook page.

“I know not everybody is prepared when something like this happens, and my purpose in life is to be there to help people,” she said.

At a community meeting on Tuesday night, officials on the fire said there were only 242 personnel on the incident due to a crunch in resources with so many big blazes burning across the west. “We are in a resources drawn-down environment,” said the incident commander and Cal Fire chief Dusty Martin, adding that the crews were doing the best they could.

“There are multiple large fires and we are all competing for the same precious resources.”

Officials said the fire’s behavior couldn’t have been predicted and across the region flames had outpaced models 2-to-1.

“We are going to continue to battle to get this under control,” Martin said, noting that they would need additional resources.

Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency in El Dorado county in response to the fire. He also announced on Tuesday that the state had secured two new fire management assistance grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The wind also drove more extreme activity by the Dixie fire – the country’s largest blaze and the biggest single wildfire in California history – as the flames surged through the Sierra Nevada range closer to the city of Susanville, home to roughly 18,000 people. New evacuation orders were also issued in Lassen county for residents just west of Highway 395.

“We’re literally at the whim of the wind right now,” Lisa Bernard, a spokeswoman for the Lassen County sheriff’s office, told the New York Times. “There is definitely a threat.”

“Intense fire activity continued into the evening hours under the influence of the frontal winds,” officials wrote in a Tuesday incident report, noting that the blaze had crossed Highway 395, forcing closures. The flames were expected to spread to the north, north-east, and east due to the winds.

The behemoth blaze, which is 31% contained, swelled by about 40,000 acres Monday night and was more than 604,500 acres by Tuesday afternoon.

The Dixie fire is one of nearly 100 major wildfires burning across more than a dozen western states that have seen historic drought and weeks of high temperatures and dry weather that have left trees, brush and grasslands as flammable as tinder. The climate crisis has made the US west warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make the weather more extreme and wildfires more destructive, according to scientists.

Across the state line in Nevada, school administrators delayed start times in the Reno-Sparks area because of a cloak of wildfire smoke from the Dixie fire blanketing the region. Smoke plumes from the Caldor fire were also visible from northern Nevada.

Two dozen fires were burning in Montana and nearly 50 more burned in Idaho, Washington and Oregon, according to the National Fire Interagency.

The Associated Press contributed reporting

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