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‘We Lost Greenville’: Dixie Fire Becomes Third-Largest Wildfire in State History, Decimates Cali

This post was updated Aug. 6, 2021, at 11:27 a.m.

A wildfire raging in Northern California exploded in size overnight, becoming the third-largest wildfire in state history amid high temperatures and strong winds. Better weather conditions were expected to aid the firefight on Friday.

The Dixie Fire grew by 110 square miles between Thursday night and Friday morning, making the blaze the largest wildfire currently raging in the nation.

“This is going to be a long firefight,” said Capt. Mitch Matlow, spokesperson of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The fire was 35% contained Friday morning but was largely expanding within the perimeter firefighters previously established. It now spans an area of 676 square miles.

On Wednesday, the fire tore through the little California mountain town of Greenville, which resident Eva Gorman said was a place of community and strong character, where neighbors volunteered to move furniture, colorful baskets of flowers brightened Main Street, and writers, musicians, mechanics and chicken farmers mingled.

Now, it’s ashes.

As hot, bone-dry, gusty weather hit California, the fire raged through the Gold Rush-era Sierra Nevada community of about 1,000, incinerating much of the downtown that included wooden buildings more than a century old.

The winds were expected to calm and change direction heading into the weekend but that good news came too late for Gorman.

“It’s just completely devastating. We’ve lost our home, my business, our whole downtown area is gone,” said Gorman, who heeded evacuation warnings and left town with her husband a week-and-a-half ago as the Dixie Fire approached.

She managed to grab some photos off the wall, her favorite jewelry and important documents but couldn’t help but think of the family treasures left behind.

“My grandmother’s dining room chairs, my great-aunt’s bed from Italy. There is a photo I keep visualizing in my mind of my son when he was 2. He’s 37 now,” she said. “At first you think, ‘It’s OK, I have the negatives.’ And then you realize, ‘Oh. No. I don’t.’”

Officials had not yet assessed the number of destroyed buildings, but Plumas County Sheriff Todd Johns estimated on Thursday that “well over” 100 homes had burned in and near the town.

“My heart is crushed by what has occurred there,” said Johns, a lifelong Greenville resident.

Authorities also shut down Lassen Volcanic National Park Thursday because of the explosive wildfire.

About a two-hour drive south, officials said some 100 homes and other buildings burned in the fast-moving River Fire that broke out Wednesday near Colfax, a town of about 2,000. There was no containment and about 6,000 people were ordered to evacuate in Placer and Nevada counties, state fire officials said.

Firefighters survey a decimated downtown as the Dixie Fire burns through Greenville, California, on Aug. 4, 2021. On the same day, officials in Northern California warned residents of two communities in the path of the fire to evacuate immediately as high winds whipped the flames onward. The fire burned through dozens of homes and businesses in Greenville. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

But the Dixie Fire has been particularly destructive. It raged through the northern Sierra Nevada town of Greenville on Wednesday evening. A gas station, hotel and bar were among many fixtures gutted in the town, which dates to California’s Gold Rush era and has some structures more than a century old.

The blaze exploded on Wednesday and Thursday through timber, grass and brush so dry that one fire official described it as “basically near combustion.” Dozens of homes had already burned before the flames made new runs.

No deaths or injuries were reported but the fire continued to threaten more than 10,000 homes.

“We lost Greenville tonight,” U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, who represents the area, said in an emotional Facebook video Wednesday night. “There’s just not words for how us in government haven’t been able to get the job done. We’ll take up the fight even harder.”

Firefighters also continue to battle the River Fire near the Sierra foothills town of Colfax. The blaze burned dozens of structures Wednesday and forced thousands to seek shelter at hastily set up evacuation centers.

“Within minutes it went to a large white plume of smoke and you started getting the alerts from the sheriff’s office, right? ” said Karen WIlliams, who lived near where the River Fire broke out.

The fire moved fast, she said. Now she and her friend Sandy Mallory are staying in a friend’s RV, and may not be able to go home until August 15.

Claudia Schwendeman has lived in the community of Chicago Park, where the River Fire burned homes, Wednesday. She says she lost her home insurance a few years back, like many residents in fire-prone areas. Now she’s on a state-backed plan.

“And yeah, now I’m playing double for less coverage. So it’s that’s tough on a, especially on well on, anybody. But when you’re on a fixed income, it gets a little challenging,” Schwendeman said.

Meanwhile, evacuations are ongoing as the Dixie Fire spreads. The fire’s northern and eastern sides exploded, and the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office issued a Facebook posting warning the town’s approximately 800 residents, “[Y]ou are in imminent danger and you MUST leave now!!”

A similar warning was issued Thursday for residents of another tiny mountain community, Taylorsville, as flames pushed toward the southeast.

Firefighters work the scene as a home is engulfed in flames during the Dixie Fire in Greenville, California, on Aug. 4, 2021. On the same day, officials in Northern California warned residents of two communities in the path of the fire to evacuate immediately as high winds whipped the flames onward. The fire burned through dozens of homes and businesses in Greenville. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

To the northwest, crews were protecting homes in the town of Chester. Residents there were among thousands under evacuation orders or warnings in several counties, but no injuries or deaths were immediately reported.

Margaret Elysia Garcia, an artist and writer who has been in Southern California waiting out the fire, watched video of her downtown Greenville office in flames. The office contained every journal she’s written in since second grade and a hand edit of a novel on top of her grandfather’s roll-top desk.

“We’re in shock. It’s not that we didn’t think this could happen to us,” she said. “At the same time, it took our whole town.”

Firefighters on Wednesday had to deal with people reluctant to leave. Their refusals meant that firefighters spent precious time loading people into cars to ferry them out, said Jake Cagle, an incident management operations section chief.

“We have firefighters that are getting guns pulled out on them, because people don’t want to evacuate,” he said.

The Dixie Fire had consumed about 432,813 acres, according to an estimate released Friday morning. That’s 676 square miles — moving the blaze from the state’s sixth-largest wildfire ever to its third-largest overnight.

The fire’s cause was under investigation, but Pacific Gas & Electric has said it may have been sparked when a tree fell on one of the utility’s power lines. No injuries or deaths have been reported.

The fire was near the town of Paradise, which largely was destroyed in a 2018 wildfire that became the nation’s deadliest in at least a century and was blamed on PG&E equipment.

On Thursday, the weather and towering smoke clouds produced by the fire’s intense, erratic winds kept firefighters struggling to put firefighters at shifting hot spots.

“It’s wreaking havoc. The winds are kind of changing direction on us every few hours,” said Capt. Sergio Arellano, a fire spokesman.

Ken Donnell left Greenville on Wednesday, thinking he’d be right back after a quick errand a few towns over, but couldn’t return as the flames swept through. All he has now are the clothes on his back and his old pickup truck, he said. He’s pretty sure his office and house, with a bag he had prepared for evacuation, is gone.

Donnell remembered helping victims of 2018’s devastating Camp Fire, in which about 100 friends lost their homes.

“Now I have a thousand friends lose their home in a day,” he said.

By Thursday, the Dixie Fire had become the sixth-largest in state history, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said. Four of the state’s other five largest fires happened in 2020.

Buildings burn as the Dixie Fire tears through downtown Greenville, California, on Aug. 4, 2021. On the same day, officials in Northern California warned residents of two communities in the path of the fire to evacuate immediately as high winds whipped the flames onward. The fire burned through dozens of homes and businesses in Greenville. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Dozens of homes had already burned before the flames made a new run Wednesday. The U.S. Forest Service said initial reports show that firefighters saved about a quarter of the structures in Greenville.

“We did everything we could,” fire spokesman Mitch Matlow said. “Sometimes it’s just not enough.”

About 100 miles south, officials said between 35 and 40 homes and other buildings burned in the fast-moving River Fire that broke out Wednesday near Colfax, a town of about 2,000. Within hours, it ripped through nearly 4 square miles of dry brush and trees. There was no containment and about 6,000 people were ordered to evacuate in Placer and Nevada counties, Cal Fire said.

In Colfax, Jamie Brown ate breakfast at a downtown restaurant Thursday while waiting to learn if his house was still standing.

He evacuated his property near Rollins Lake a day earlier, when “it looked like the whole town was going to burn down.” Conditions had calmed a bit by Thursday, and he was hoping for the best.

“I figure I better have a nice breakfast before I lose my home,” he said.

After firefighters made progress earlier this week, high heat, low humidity and gusty winds erupted Wednesday and were expected to be a continued threat.

Above, a Bay Area meteorologist tweets a pyrocumulus cloud emerging from the Dixie Fire in July.

The Dixie Fire was running parallel to a canyon area that served as a chimney, making it so hot that it created enormous pyrocumulus columns of smoke. These clouds bring chaotic winds, making a fire “critically erratic” so it’s hard to predict the direction of growth, he added.

Heatwaves and historic drought tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight in the American 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.

Flames approach a home as the Dixie Fire moves into Greenville, California, on Aug. 4, 2021. On the same day, officials in Northern California warned residents of two communities in the path of the fire to evacuate immediately as high winds whipped the flames onward. The fire burned through dozens of homes and businesses in Greenville. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Risky weather also was expected across Southern California, where heat advisories and warnings were issued for inland valleys, mountains and deserts for much of the week.

KQED’s Mary Franklin Harvin contributed to this report. AP’s Christopher Weber reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Janie Har and Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco also contributed.

Copyright 2021 KQED