The massive Dixie Fire in Northern California has now been burning for nearly a month — it ignited in the Sierra Nevada around four weeks ago on July 13.
Thousands of people are under evacuation orders as the fire has blossomed to consume nearly 500,000 acres. It is currently 21% contained and has destroyed at least 400 structures.
The fire poses a dire threat to small communities, having ravaged the town of Greenville last week. It currently threatens nearly 14,000 more structures.
Emergency crews search for survivors of Greenville tragedy
The Plumas County Sheriff's Office says 27 people who had previously been unaccounted for when fire gutted much of Greenville's downtown and other buildings are now safe and accounted for. But deputies are still searching for four others in the town.
The sheriff's office is also telling residents not to try to return to their homes before evacuation orders are lifted.
Margaret Elysia Garcia, who wrote a eulogy for her hometown of Greenville, told NPR over the weekend that the scale of the loss extends far beyond individual homes.
"I talked a lot to people over the last couple of days," Garcia said. "We're not talking about one family losing a house. We're talking about one family, their grandfather's house, their grandmother's house, their cousin's house. They're all gone.
"And so where normally you would lean on, you know, the one person in your family whose house was saved, like, there's no one to lean on."
It will make rebuilding a challenge, she said, adding that many residents lost their fire insurance after the horrific Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise three years ago.
New evacuation orders issued over the weekend
The list of evacuation orders for the area and its communities is eight pages long, covering parts of four counties: Plumas, Butte, Lassen and Tehama. Those alerts have been changing rapidly, reflecting the large fire's erratic behavior.
"Our lines are flooded with calls" from people trying to figure out if they're in an evacuation zone or a safe haven, the Lassen County Sheriff's Office says. The agency wants residents to use the state's fire map to get the latest advisory for their specific address.
For people who do opt to leave, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, says they must follow routes outlined in evacuation orders, adding, "Directions provided by mobile devices and GPS units could lead drivers into hazardous areas."
Dixie may not be completely contained until Aug. 20
The Dixie Fire has already consumed 489,287 acres. The only California wildfire known to be larger than the Dixie Fire is last year's August Complex Fire, which consumed more than 1 million acres.
A wildfire "complex" refers to two or more fires that are active in the same area and are assigned to the same commander or unified command. In the case of the August Complex Fire, those individual blazes were started by lightning; many of them merged, creating what became known as a gigafire.
More than 5,800 personnel are assigned to fight the fire, using equipment from drip torches to bulldozers as well as 30 helicopters and hundreds of fire engines.
There have been three injuries to firefighters reported as a result of the fire, and no deaths or injuries among civilians, according to CalFire.
Officials don't expect the Dixie Fire to be completely contained until Aug. 20, according to their most recent projections.
PG&E utility is suspected of having a role in the fire's start
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, according to CalFire. But Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said there's "very little doubt" that power equipment operated by Pacific Gas & Electric helped start the fire. The utility has been linked to other recent large wildfires.
Describing the circumstances that sparked the Dixie blaze, Ramsey recently told North State Public Radio, "there was a tree into a line, a 12,000-volt line that came down the hill on the opposite side of the Cresta Dam in the Feather River Canyon. And the fire started under that line."
Days after the Dixie Fire ignited, PG&E said its equipment may have been involved in starting the fire. That's according to a report the utility filed with state regulators.
"The report states that on July 13 a PG&E employee responded to a report of a power outage at Cresta Dam off of Highway 70," Capital Public Radio reported. "The employee reported blown fuses and a tree leaning into a conductor on top of a pole, with fire at the base of the tree."
At the time of that report, the Dixie Fire was around 30,000 acres, and was 15% contained.
Ramsey's office is working with CalFire to investigate what caused the fire. While he said the evidence currently points to the beleaguered utility, Ramsey added it's too early to say whether the case might rise to the level of criminal neglect.
Experts blame climate change and other human behavior
The explosive growth of a large blaze such as the Dixie Fire has many contributing factors, and climate change is one of them — a point emphasized in a new report from the United Nations, which notes that cycles of intense heat and drought create ideal conditions for catastrophic wildfires to occur with increasing frequency.
But the large California fire is also benefiting from decades of forestry management decisions that prioritized suppressing wildfires rather than limiting the amount of flammable fuel in the forests, as Kate Wolffe from NPR member station KQED in San Francisco reported.
"We have so much fuel, we have high tree densities, we have vulnerability and then we put climate change on top of that," Scott Stephens, the head of the Fire Science Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, told Wolffe. "It actually just makes a difficult situation worse."
Stephens said the state should boost its forest management program to around 10 times its current level, Wolffe added.