San Francisco Chronicle

Fires searing rural towns

Parched conditions are ominous for 2 Northern California blazes

- By Dustin Gardiner, Sarah Ravani and Rachel Swan

CRESCENT MILLS, Plumas County — Firefighte­rs are bracing for what could be an agonizing weekend in Northern California, where the the forecast of sweltering heat combined with a tinderdry environmen­t threatened to exacerbate two blazes — the Dixie and River fires — that have already burned thousands of acres.

The Dixie Fire attained a grim record Friday as the thirdlarge­st in California history, lashed by gusts Thursday night that spread the flames through Plumas and Butte counties. By Friday evening, it had charred 434,813 acres, surpassing the LNU and SCU lightning complexes of last August, and was 21% contained.

In Placer County, crews gained the upper hand over the River Fire, near the Gold

“We’ve seen this trajectory, year after year . ... We could see the plume day after day, getting bigger on the horizon.” UCLA Professor Glen MacDonald, who was doing research in the Dixie Fire zone

Country town of Colfax. The fire that has so far scorched 2,600 acres; injured three people, including one firefighte­r; and destroyed 88 structures. It was 40% contained Friday, giving some residents glimmers of hope.

Wildfires have become a seasonal nightmare in California, fueled by severe drought, weather patterns warped by climate change and the encroachme­nt of developmen­t into the wilderness. The fires not only send thousands fleeing and destroy communitie­s but foul the air far and wide. On Friday, in parts of Plumas County, air quality reached extremely hazardous levels that were staggering­ly high compared to other global cities. In the Bay Area, the wafting smoke has also made skies hazy with soot and ash.

“We’ve seen this trajectory, year after year, marching toward where we are right now,” UCLA Professor Glen MacDonald said. A geographer who specialize­s in climate change and wildfires, MacDonald had been conducting research at a field site in the Plumas National Forest as the Dixie Fire roared through the Sierra Nevada.

“We could see the plume day after day, getting bigger on the horizon,” he said, noting that when he woke up Friday morning, he could taste the smoke in his throat, and knew it was time to leave.

Though the cause of both the Dixie and River fires is under investigat­ion, PG&E has filed a report saying the Fly Fire — which merged with the Dixie Fire — may have started when a tree fell on a PG&E power line.

After leveling the Plumas County Gold Rush town of Greenville, the Dixie Fire closed Lassen Volcanic National Park on Thursday as the flames rampaged northward. So far, it’s destroyed 184 buildings and 84 minor structures and damaged 20 more.

Acrid clouds of smoke lingered in the air in mountain towns across the Sierra. The haze was so thick that the sun shone red in the middle of the day.

As fire continued raging Friday, residents who evacuated the burned area struggled to fathom how the blaze had forever altered their lives. Houses, stores, and historic buildings were gone. Scarred power lines littered the streets.

Evacuated residents, including the 2,100 from Greenville and more from elsewhere, wondered whether it would be possible to rebuild.

Juvenal Garcia, who fled Greenville hours before flames consumed the historic town, stood Friday morning outside a Red Cross shelter in Quincy (Plumas County), about 15 miles from the fire’s edge.

The 71yearold retired quarry worker lost everything, including his home and the restaurant, Jose’s Tacos, that he helped his son open before the pandemic. Garcia said he watched videos showing the restaurant in ashes.

“We just started, we had it for two years” he said, holding back tears under the brim of a baseball cap. “I don’t know what’s going to be next. It could be a ghost town in the future. I don’t know.”

Confrontin­g what may be another ruthless wildfire season, the state began pouring in resources. CalFire and other agencies deployed 5,222 people to battle the Dixie Fire and 1,309 to keep the River Fire at bay. Both fires also required a huge arsenal of equipment, with 24 helicopter­s and 110 dozers devoted to the Dixie Fire and 41 dozers assigned to the River Fire.

Robin Rush, 62, sat in his Toyota pickup truck Friday on the side of Highway 174 near the River Fire evacuation zone barricade. Rush had evacuated Wednesday from his house on White Oak Drive near the community of Shady Glen (Placer County), where the River Fire tore through several other homes. Rush had heard from a friend who defied evacuation orders that his house was intact.

“I got out with the fire basically in my driveway,” Rush said. He and his cat, Shadow, have been staying at a friend’s house, but they are ready to return home.

Law enforcemen­t officials held a meeting Friday morning to discuss lifting evacuation orders, according to a highway patrol officer guarding the barricade at Highway 174. The officer had hoped they’d be able to let people return to part of the area around 10:30 a.m., but officials ultimately decided against it. Power and gas lines had to be checked, and crews had to mop up the rubble before people could safely return.

More help is on the way. To speed aid to the area, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency Thursday for Placer and Nevada counties.

While some were cautiously optimistic about the River Fire, others gritted their teeth. CalFire pointed to shifting weather conditions in an incident report Thursday night, noting that the next day could bring higher temperatur­es and more intense winds. If the River Fire erupts again, it may claim homes and buildings: another 3,400 structures remain threatened.

The devastatio­n from the much larger Dixie Fire in Plumas County was more severe.

Even so, volunteers with the Crescent Mills Fire Department exhaled a temporary sigh of relief Friday afternoon. The night before, fierce winds sent the fire barreling toward the Plumas County town from the west.

A steady procession of fire trucks and water tankers rolled down Highway 89 through Crescent Mills, through air choked with smoke and ash that gathered on windshield­s and the hoods of cars. Firefighte­rs and emergency workers huddled around tables at Gigi's Market, a restaurant along the main drag, as they took a moment to recuperate from the grueling firefight

Residents who declined warnings to evacuate watched as a ridge above town glowed bright orange in the dark. Fire crews with bulldozers fought through the night to hold the fire outside town.

Lara Wheeler, a volunteer, said she worried few buildings would be left standing as 29mph wind gusts sent flames soaring high into the air. She slept in her car, stationed in a large parking lot.

“It’s a miracle that we’re here,” she said, as flakes of ash larger than a quarter fell from the sky. “We woke up and felt a huge sigh of relief that town was still standing.”

Wheeler, 48, said residents have banded together to help fire crews save Crescent Mills. She and her boyfriend have spent recent days patrolling town on ATVs, looking for hot spots to extinguish.

Like nearly everyone in this region of the Sierra, Wheeler’s family has faced profound loss in recent days. The fire destroyed her mother’s home in Greenville, which had been in the family since 1906.

She said she stayed behind to help prevent the fire from leaving another town in smoldering ruins.

“I just didn’t want the same thing to happen to Crescent Mills that happened to Greenville,” Wheeler said. “I feared for the town.”

 ?? Stephen Lam / The Chronicle ?? Regina Rutledge fled her Plumas County home with her dogs and sits in her truck at a shelter.
Stephen Lam / The Chronicle Regina Rutledge fled her Plumas County home with her dogs and sits in her truck at a shelter.
 ?? Stephen Lam / The Chronicle ?? Cattle graze under a smoky sky in Westwood (Lassen County) as the Dixie Fire churns over the region.
Stephen Lam / The Chronicle Cattle graze under a smoky sky in Westwood (Lassen County) as the Dixie Fire churns over the region.

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