919,300-acre Dixie Fire getting closer to becoming California's largest wildfire of all times

Mike Chapman Damon Arthur Michele Chandler
Redding Record Searchlight

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Hundreds more firefighters have joined the battle against the Dixie Fire as the blaze continues to spot to the southeast and northwest inside Lassen Volcanic National Park and grow.

On Tuesday, smoke lifted from the area, the fire intensified. It torched another 1,721 acres and was burning 919,300 acres as of Tuesday night. Containment remained unchanged from the morning and stood at 59%.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported 4,673 firefighters and 73 crews were working the fire. The new personnel were called in to assist with keeping the fire out of the Hat Creek Drainage, Raker Peak, and off Badger Mountain.

"Crews aggressively improved secondary contingency lines and continued fuels reduction projects in the area," Cal Fire reported.

Cal Fire used the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Fire Train with suppression efforts.

Bogs in the Lake Almanor area continues to smolder as fire managers expected. Mop-up and patrol will continue in this area.

Cal Fire said there will be little change in the weather in the next several days, "continued hot days and cool nights, with smoke settling into the valley bottoms at night and lifting in the morning."

Firefighters held containment lines on the southeast side of the fire, and for the first time in many days, operations reported little if any fire growth.

In the last couple weeks, crews and heavy equipment built about 25 miles of "containment line from the Devil’s Punchbowl south of Taylorsville east all the way to Dixie Mountain, keeping pace with the rapidly eastward spreading fire."

The July 13 fire has destroyed 1,282 structures, including 688 homes. The massive fire is more than 113,000 acres from overtaking the August Complex as California's largest wildfire on record.  

7:50 a.m.: Dixie Fire grows 2,900 acres, containment up slightly

As firefighters continue to increase the containment on the massive Dixie Fire, they are bracing for hot daytime temperatures over the next several days in the east zone of the blaze, with light southwest and westerly winds and low humidity.

But crews battling the fire in the east zone received reinforcement Monday as more than 500 new firefighters joined the fight, officials said.

The fire grew 2,924 acres overnight to 917,579 acres and containment went up slightly to 59%, the California Department of  Forestry and Fire Protection said Tuesday morning. 

On the west side of the fire, crews work to finish containment lines in rugged terrain in the wilderness of Lassen Volcanic National Park. Containment lines also are being established to protect fiber optic cable in the area of Highway 44.

Officials said the fire jumped Highway 395 south of Milford, which closed the highway for a short time.

The fire continues to burn in steep terrain of the Devil's Punchbowl south of Taylorsville, and officials said firefighters are keeping an eye on it, using helicopters to keep it from spreading and to cool it down.

The massive fire is about 115,000 acres from overtaking the August Complex as California's largest wildfire on record.  

4:00 a.m. Tuesday: Firefighter who died during the Dixie Fire identified

One firefighter assigned to the Dixie Fire and one firefighter assigned to the French Fire northeast of Bakersfield have died as wildfires continue to burn across the North State.

California's current tide of wildfires did not directly cause either death. However, authorities said the two men assigned to fire-related duties died from illness.

Marcus Pacheco, an assistant fire engine operator for Lassen National Forest with 30 years of experience, died on Thursday. He was assigned to the Dixie Fire burning north of the Caldor Fire, authorities said on Monday.

Pacheco served for thirty years of firefighting in many roles for multiple agencies, according to a statement from the USDA Forest Service. "From school education programs to fighting fire, Marcus always showed up and lent a hand. Marcus will be mourned by all that knew and cared for him," the agency said. 

And a retired firefighter who was hired to help with the French Fire died from complications of COVID-19, authorities said Monday. He was identified as Allen Johnson.

No further details were available on Monday.

The Dixie Fire burns on Horton Ridge near Dixie Mountain in Plumas County on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. The fire also was very active in the Coyote Hills and Ross Canyon areas Saturday afternoon. Aircraft made water and retardant drops to assist crews.

The Dixie Fire began in mid-July in the northern Sierra Nevada and is the second-largest wildfire in recorded state history. It has burned nearly 1,400 square miles (3,625 square kilometers) in five counties and three national parks and forests, according to Cal Fire.

Meanwhile, containment inched higher on the ferocious Dixie Fire as U.S. Army soldiers arrived from Washington state to help firefighters battle the five-county blaze.

As of Monday evening, the fire's size had grown to 914,655 acres, up from 893,852 acres on Sunday and 889,001 acres on Saturday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Containment on the Dixie Fire was reported at 58% on Monday.

The cost of fighting seven major fires burning in the North State reached $679.1 million as of Sunday.

An air tanker drops retardant on Horton Ridge in Plumas County as the Dixie Fire burns Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

Crews are continuing efforts to protect Old Station in eastern Shasta County and keep the Highway 44 corridor open, Cal Fire officials said in a Saturday evening update. Firefighters were continuing to build direct and indirect containment lines south of Old Station.

Fire lines also are being built in steep and rugged terrain inside Lassen Volcanic National Park. A contingency line is being constructed north and south of Janesville and Milford in attempt to keep flames in check.

"A wind event is predicted in the area, therefore; crews are providing structure protection while ensuring firefighter safety," Cal Fire said.

Portions of the Dixie Fire may soon merge with the Beckwourth Complex, a 105,670-acre lightning-caused blaze to the east of the Dixie Fire. The Beckwourth Complex is burning to the west of Highway 395 and north of Highway 70. That fire is 98% contained.

On Sunday afternoon, two areas were reduced from evacuation orders to evacuation warnings:

Milford area east (lake side) of Highway 395 from the Milford Grade intersection south to the Flux Rd intersection, and the McCoy Flat area south of Highway 44 from County Road A21 east to Hog Flat Reservoir. 

Follow our updates throughout the day on Saturday, Sept. 4.

"We had one firefighter fatality who passed away from illness," Dixie Fire public information officer Edwin Zuniga said.

9:35 a.m. Monday: Dixie Fire expands again

On Monday, the Dixie Fire grew to 914,655 acres, up from 893,852 acres on Sunday and 889,001 acres Saturday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Containment on the Dixie Fire rose slightly on Monday, to 58%, up from 56% on Sunday.

4 a.m.: Trained soldiers arrive

Some 225 soldiers from the 23rd Brigade Engineer Battalion and 2-3 Infantry Battalion based out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington are now working alongside firefighters, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center.

U.S. Army Sgt. Karen Mayfield, left, and Sgt. Philip Chase, right, sharpen the edges of their fire-fighting tools as they reinforce control lines in the Dixie Fire in the Plumas National Forest on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021. The two sergeants are with the 23rd Brigade Engineer Battalion, 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. They were sent to the fire along with more than 200 other soldiers to aid firefighters.

Army officials said the troops will be guided by crew bosses and wildland fire strike team leaders. The cavalry of help will continue as California National Guard crews are expected Tuesday following training.

In addition, eight C-130 air tankers were sent to Cal Fire's largest air tanker base at McClellan Park near Sacramento.

The troops received training before being sent to the Lassen and Plumas national forests and Lassen Volcanic National Park.

"The rigorous training and certification process our soldiers undergo, prior to operating in a firefighting environment, will ensure that once deployed, they will safely augment federal wildland fire-fighting capabilities in order to protect lives, natural and cultural resources, and property,” Maj. Gen. Xavier T. Brunson said in a statement.

Five 'problem areas'

In his live Saturday night report on Facebook, East Zone incident commander Evans Kuo said crews continue to be challenged by extremely dry conditions in the forest.

He listed five problem areas that fire officials are trying to manage:

  1. The far north end on the escarpment above Herlong junction.
  2. Trying to herd the fire around Dixie Valley. "That's one of our immediate threats; to minimize impacts to that community."
  3. Keep the fire from moving south and prevent it from reaching Portola. "In the event the fire wants to keep pushing farther to the south, we do have contingency actions in place and going in right now."
  4. In the west zone, a "big effort" is underway to keep the fire from reaching Old Station.
  5. The other goal is to keep the fire south of Highway 44.

Other Northern California fires

Antelope Fire in Siskiyou County: 71,512 acres and 83% contained as of Monday.

Caldor Fire in Eldorado National Forest:  216,358 acres and 45% contained as of Monday.

Dixie Fire in Plumas, Butte, Tehama, Lassen and Shasta counties: 910,495 acres and 58% contained as of Monday.

Knob Fire in Humboldt County: 2,414 acres and 82% contained as of Monday.

McFarland Fire in Trinity and Shasta counties: 122,653 acres and 98% containment as of Sunday.

Monument Fire in Trinity County: 183,371 acres and 37% contained as of Monday.

McCash Fire in Klamath National Forest: 57,038 acres and 13% contained as of Monday.

River Complex in Klamath National Forest: 121,273 acres and 21% contained as of Monday. Evacuations ordered for Zone 2 and Zone 4 at 3:30 p.m. on Monday.

Mike Chapman is an award-winning reporter and photographer for the Record Searchlight in Redding, Calif. His newspaper career spans Yreka and Eureka in Northern California and Bellingham, Wash. Support local journalism by subscribing today.