A wildfire raged in a small forest town in northern California on Tuesday, burning dozens of homes as the dangerously dry and windy weather also continued to fuel other massive fires and prompted the largest service the country’s public to begin cutting power to 51,000 customers.
The Caldor fire in the northern Sierra Nevada burned about 50 homes in and around Grizzly Flats, a town of about 1,200 residents, fire officials said at a community meeting.
Governor Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency for El Dorado County due to the blaze, which tripled between Monday and Tuesday afternoon to nearly 50 square miles (129 square kilometers),
To the north, the Dixie Fire – the largest of some 100 active wildfires in more than a dozen western states – was advancing towards Susanville, with a population of about 18,000.
Meanwhile, Pacific Gas & Electric announced that it had started cutting power to some 51,000 customers in small portions of 18 northern counties to prevent winds from knocking down or fouling power lines and triggering new fires.
The utility said the precautionary closures were focused on the Sierra Nevada foothills, the North Coast, the North Valley and the North Bay Mountains and could last until Wednesday afternoon.
Very few houses remained standing in Grizzly Flats, where the streets were littered with fallen power lines and poles. The houses were reduced to smoldering ashes and twisted metal with only chimneys rising above the ruins. A post office and a primary school were also destroyed.
Two seriously injured people were airlifted to hospitals from the Grizzly Flats area, firefighters said.
Derek Shaves and Tracy Jackson were helping their friend collect food and other supplies from Grizzly Pub & Grub, a business in the evacuation area that was not affected by the fire.
Shaves said he went to Grizzly Flats on Tuesday and saw his house and most homes in his neighborhood were destroyed by the fire.
“It’s a pile of ashes,” he said. “Everyone in my neighborhood is a pile of ash and every block I have visited – except for five separate houses which were safe – has been totally devastated. “
With the Dixie fire, many resources were deployed to the Susanville area, where residents were warned to be ready to evacuate, said Mark Brunton, operations section chief.
“It’s not out of the game, and the next 24 hours are going to be crucial to see what the fire will do there,” he said in an online briefing.
To the east, point fires established themselves south of the small community of Janesville, whose evacuation had been ordered. Some structures were lost there – images captured by The Associated Press showed a house consumed by flames – but a wave of firefighters was able to dispel the blaze around much of the city, Brunton said.
The Dixie Fire, which burned some 600 homes, is the largest of the major wildfires in the western states of the United States that have seen historic drought and weeks of high temperatures and dry weather that left trees, brush and grassland as flammable as tinder. Climate change has made the western United States hotter and drier over the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more destructive, scientists say.
Susanville is the seat of Lassen County and the largest city that the Dixie Fire, named after the road it started, has approached since it erupted last month. The former forestry and mining town of the Sierra Nevada has two state prisons, a nearby federal prison, and a casino.
Ashes fell from the advancing blaze, and a police statement urged residents “to be vigilant and ready to evacuate” if the blaze threatens the city.
The Dixie Fire has burned more than 940 square miles (2,434 square km) in the northern Sierra Nevada and southern Cascades since it ignited on July 13 and eventually merged into a smaller fire. That’s less than a third party content.
Investigations are continuing, but PG&E has informed utility regulators that the Dixie and Fly fires may have been caused by falling trees in its power lines. The Dixie fire started near the town of Paradise, which was devastated by a 2018 wildfire ignited by PG&E equipment during high winds. Eighty-five people have died.
Ongoing damage investigations have identified more than 1,100 buildings destroyed, including 630 houses, and more than 16,000 structures remained at risk. Numerous evacuation orders were in effect.
According to the National Fire Interagency Center, two dozen fires were burning in Montana and nearly 50 more in Idaho, Washington and Oregon.