'Extremely challenging stretch': Smoke clearing could energize Dixie Fire, other blazes as winds return
Scores of wildfires racing across much of the Northwest could be energized this week by a resurgence of high winds and heat, forecasters warned Monday.
The historic Dixie Fire has destroyed at least 873 buildings and threatens thousands of others across four Northern California counties. More than 100 major blazes are raging through 15 Western states, authorities say.
"An extremely challenging stretch is in store for area firefighters over the upcoming days as episodes of gusty winds will precede the building heat," AccuWeather meteorologist Brandon Buckingham said.
The forecasting service said cities such as Seattle and Portland got a sprinkling of rain late last week after long dry spells, but hot, gusty and smoky conditions are on the way.
Thick smoke that held down winds and temperatures in many areas also brought havoc to air quality. Denver on Saturday had the worst air quality in the world, according to IQair.com. On Monday the city had yielded the top spot – to Krasnoyarsk, Russia – but still ranked seventh in the world, just behind Salt Lake City.
Twenty-five major fires were burning in Montana, the most of any state. Idaho had 20, Oregon 16, Washington 13 and California 11. Temperatures could climb 25 degrees above average in some areas this week, worsening the already intense drought across the region, AccuWeather said.
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The return of the winds and intense heat does not bode well for more than 20,000 firefighters battling the blazes. Mark Brunton, operations section chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the live trees in many areas have a lower fuel moisture than kiln-dried lumber at a lumber yard.
“It’s that dry, so it doesn’t take much for any sort of embers, sparks or small flaming front to get (a fire) going," he said.
The Department of Energy is investing $2.2 million into wildfire prevention technologies to help fight future fires.
“Climate change is driving extreme heat and drought, leading to more frequent and severe wildfires,” said Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy, David Turk. “By partnering with industry and leveraging the advanced capabilities at DOE’s National Labs, these projects will expand real-world solutions at scale to help secure the electric grid that powers our communities and our daily lives.”
California’s fire season is on pace to surpass last year's, which was the worst in recent recorded state history. Since the start of 2021, more than 6,000 blazes have destroyed more than 1,260 square miles of land – a larger area than the state of Rhode Island and more than triple the losses for the same period in 2020, according to Cal Fire figures.
Firefighters have been able to tamp down growth of the River Fire, a blaze south of the Dixie Fire that broke out Wednesday and destroyed 68 homes.
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The Dixie Fire was more than 750 square miles Monday night and remained just 22% contained, according to Cal Fire. It had scorched an area larger than the city of Los Angeles.
The blaze, named for the road where it started July 14, surpassed last year’s Creek Fire as the largest single fire in California history but is still about half the size of the August Complex. That was a series of infernos caused by lightning in 2020 and is considered the state's largest wildfire overall.
The cause of the blaze is under investigation, but Pacific Gas & Electric said in two separate reports to the California Public Utilities Commission that it may have been sparked when a tree fell on one of its power lines. A federal judge ordered PG&E on Friday to give details by Aug. 16 about the equipment and vegetation where the fire started.
The smoke clearing out on eastern portions of the Dixie Fire meant crews that had been directly attacking the front lines would be forced to retreat and build containment lines farther back, said Dan McKeague, a fire information officer for the U.S. Forest Service. On the plus side, better visibility should allow planes and helicopters to return to the fight.
“As soon as that air clears, we can fly again,” McKeague said.
Northwest of the Dixie Fire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, hundreds of homes remained threatened by two fires that continued to grow. About a quarter of the McFarland Fire was contained. New evacuation orders were issued Monday for residents near the Monument Fire, which was only about 3% contained.
Contributing: The Associated Press