Greenville: After four years of homelessness, Kesia Studebaker thought she finally landed on her feet when she found a job cooking in a diner and moved into a house in the small community of Greenville.
She had been renting for three months and hoped the stability would help her win back custody of her 14-year-old daughter. But in just one night, a raging wildfire tore through the mountain town and took it all away, she said.
Californian Governor Gavin Newsom visits Greenville with Cal Fire assistant regional chief Curtis Brown.Credit:AP
Fuelled by strong winds and bone-dry vegetation, the Dixie Fire has grown to become one of the largest wildfires in California’s history.
The Dixie Fire, named after the road where it started, had grown to an area of 1875 square kilometres by Sunday morning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Only the August Complex Fire of August 2020, which consumed more than 404,000 hectares, was bigger.
Residents of the scenic forestlands of Northern California have endured a weekend of fear as the fire threatens to reduce thousands of homes to ashes.
Firefighters battling the Dixie Fire in Plumas County, California.Credit:AP
“We knew we didn’t get enough rainfall and fires could happen, but we didn’t expect a monster like this,” Studebaker said on Saturday.
The fire incinerated much of Greenville on Wednesday and Thursday, destroying 370 homes and structures and threatening nearly 14,000 buildings in the northern Sierra Nevada. It engulfed an area larger than the size of New York City.
Fire crews have constructed 748-kilometre of line around the massive blaze, Deputy Incident Commander Chris Waters said. That’s about the distance from the central California city of Chico to Los Angeles, but officials say only 20 per cent of that area is secure.
“Every bit of that line needs to be constructed, staffed, mopped up and actually put to bed before we can call this fire fully contained,” Waters said.
A deer is caught in the smoke from the the Dixie Fire.Credit:AP
Erratic winds were predicted again on Sunday afternoon local time (Monday morning AEST).
The fire’s cause remains under investigation. The Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) utility has said it may have been sparked when a tree fell on one of its power lines.
Cooler overnight temperatures and higher humidity slowed the spread of the fire and temperatures topped 32 degrees Celsius on Sunday, replacing the highs recorded last week.
But the blaze and other fires within several hundred kilometres pose an ongoing threat.
Studebaker sought shelter at an evacuation centre before setting up her tent in a friend’s front yard.
She is counting on returning to her job if the restaurant where she works is still standing. Her boss also evacuated when the town of Chester, north-west of Greenville, lost power and the smoke was so thick that it made it hard to breathe.
Heat waves and historic drought tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight in the American West. Scientists have said climate change has made the region much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make the weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
Near the Klamath National Forest, firefighters kept a close watch on small communities that were ordered to evacuate in the path of the Antelope Fire, which earlier threw up flames 30 metres high as it blackened bone-dry grass, brush and timber. It too was just 20 per cent contained on Sunday.
Further north-west, about 500 homes scattered in and around Shasta-Trinity National Forest remained threatened by the Monument Fire and others by the McFarland Fire, both started by lightning storms last week, fire officials said.
About a two-hour drive south from the Dixie Fire, crews had surrounded nearly half the River Fire that broke out on Wednesday near the town of Colfax and destroyed 68 homes and other buildings. Evacuation orders for thousands of people in Nevada and Placer counties were lifted on Friday. Three people, including a firefighter, were injured, authorities said.
Smoke from the fires blanketed Northern California and western Nevada, causing air quality to deteriorate to hazardous levels.
Air quality advisories extended throughout California’s San Joaquin Valley and as far as the San Francisco Bay Area to Denver, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, where residents were urged to keep their windows and doors shut. Denver’s air quality ranked among the worst in the world on Saturday afternoon.
California’s fire season is on track to surpass last year’s season, which was the worst fire season in recent recorded state history.
Since the start of the year, more than 6000 blazes have destroyed more than 3260 square kilometres of land – more than triple the losses for the same period in 2020, according to state fire figures.
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