It's been one month since the Dixie Fire exploded in Northern California, incinerating an entire town and forcing thousands of people to flee their homes, and it's showing little signs of slowing down.
An already difficult wildfire fight could become ever harder this weekend as firefighters brace for triple digit temperatures and the potential of dry lightning.
Isolated thunderstorms in the Sierra Nevada could bring some moisture, but also gusty and erratic winds that could spread the fire, officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, said during a Friday morning briefing. Lightning could spark new blazes even as crews try to surround a number of other forest fires that were ignited by lightning last month.
Repopulation orders for several neighboring communities were canceled Friday “out of extreme caution to protect public safety” after spot fires erupted overnight, dashing any hopes of residents returning to their homes, according to the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office.
That increased fire activity knocked out cellphone, internet and 911 service in Lassen County after a fiber optic cable was damaged, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Phone and internet service was restored as of Friday morning, but it remained unclear whether 911 service was back to normal, an interagency spokesperson said.
“Crews worked all night, but there’s just a lot of fire,” Jake Cagle, the U.S. Forest Service operations section chief, said Friday at a news briefing.
The Dixie Fire has already consumed nearly 518,000 acres across four counties, two national forests and one national park. It was 31 percent contained as of Friday. An estimated containment date is still weeks away, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Friday’s forecast of heat, winds and lightning is “not going to help,” Cagle said. “This will be a challenge."
Residents near the fire were still trying to cope with the magnitude of their loss.
“Everything that I own is now ashes or twisted metal. That’s just all it is,” said Greenville resident Ken Donnell, who escaped with just the clothes on his back.
Donnell said he was heartbroken, but that “by God, I’m going to smile. Because you know, it just makes things a little bit better, and a little bit better right now is a lot.”
Sam Prentice, a firefighter for the Forest Service, battled the flames in Greenville on Aug. 5, when the town was leveled. He was not optimistic on Greenville’s ability to rebuild.
“Essentially it starts to become an archeology site — kind of a testament to the fire era that we’re in right now,” said Prentice. “It’s daunting.”
The fire has ravaged more than 800 square miles (well over 2,000 square kilometers) — an area larger than London — and continued to threaten more than a dozen rural and forest communities.
Earlier this week, fire officials warned of shrinking supplies for wildland firefighters arriving at fire camps. One memo instructed firefighters and incident management teams to bring a personal stash of food, water and other supplies to last them three days.
A second memo warned that “due to the increased demand and numerous long duration fires,” communication equipment, including handheld radios and travel support, was “critically low.”
The supply shortages were not expected to affect firefighters who are already stationed at incidents throughout the West.
The two memos contributed to a dire picture of an already overburdened federal firefighting force facing increasingly difficult conditions on the ground.