The Dixie Fire exploded by more than 97,000 acres in 24 hours, becoming the third-largest wildfire on record in California by Friday. It had been only sixth on the list of blazes the day before.
The fire, which leveled the town of Greenville in Northern California this week, also became the largest blaze in the United States this year, having burned 432,813 acres by Friday morning, according to The New York Times wildfire tracker.
It has destroyed at least 91 structures so far and is likely to grow, with only 35 percent of the fire contained.
The Bootleg Fire in Oregon had previously been the largest wildfire in the nation this year, at 413,765 acres. That fire is 87 percent contained.
Experts say that the Dixie Fire’s dramatic growth fits into a trend of rapidly expanding fires fueled by severe drought conditions, driven in part by a warming climate.
“The number of fires has not gone up, but the amount of burned areas since the 1980s in California has doubled — more than doubled,” said Robert Field, a researcher at Columbia University and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
Fire season has also started earlier in recent years. The Dixie Fire ignited on July 13, about two weeks before the state typically experiences its most intense fires.
“We are approaching historical levels of fires that have not been seen at this explosive rate of growth in over 100 years,” said Tim Jones, a public information officer for the agencies fighting the Dixie Fire.
The 10 Largest Fires in California
Seven of California’s largest wildfires have occurred within the past year. The largest in the state’s recorded history — going back to 1932, because records before that are considered unreliable — burned last August, when a series of dry lightning strikes ignited multiple fires that merged to scorch over a million acres.
“There’s just that much more fuel on the landscape, and it’s become more flammable because of climate change,” Dr. Field said.
Fire experts don’t see much indication that conditions will improve.
“It looks like we’ve passed some sort of threshold, and we’re seeing more and more extreme events,” said Jennifer Balch, who directs the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, adding, “I was surprised last year. I guess this year, I was bracing myself.”
An earlier version of a graphic with this article stated incorrectly the number of buildings destroyed by some of California’s largest fires. Several fires destroyed hundreds or thousands of buildings.
After the Dixie Fire destroyed the Gold Rush town of Greenville, Calif., local officials said they were hopeful that improving weather conditions on Friday would help firefighters prevent the blaze from dealing further damage.
At a community meeting on Thursday night, a meteorologist told residents of threatened towns several hours north of Sacramento that winds were expected to decrease and that the wildfire smoke would keep temperatures on the ground cooler. He said there was no sign of the strong weather systems that had plagued this week.
Still, the fire continued to expand at an alarming pace. Overnight, it grew to nearly 433,000 acres, according to The New York Times wildfire tracker, becoming the third-largest blaze in recorded California history — up from sixth the day before — and the largest wildfire now burning in the United States, surpassing the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon.
Nobody was resting easy after seeing the destruction that shifting winds had brought to Greenville, a town of about 1,000 people.
“It looks like a bomb went off,” said Ryan Meacher, 37, whose father’s house in Greenville was one of many that burned down. “There is nothing left.”
Mr. Meacher lives in Grass Valley, which is itself being threatened by the River Fire, and said it was heartbreaking to think about what was lost in Greenville — the library where he would pick up books and VHS tapes, the pizza place next door with an arcade.
Also destroyed was a charter school where Kjessie Essue’s husband works and the Cy Hall Memorial Museum, which covered the history of Indian Valley and which her parents spent hundreds of hours building.
Ms. Essue, 38, lives in nearby Taylorsville and evacuated south on Thursday with her Nigerian Dwarf goats, her husband, her three young children and her parents, who do not know whether their Greenville home still stands.
She said it seemed liked a movie as they packed up, with an alarm blaring and wild winds sending a smoke plume with a black center toward the area.
“Greenville is a wasteland,” she said. “It’s surreal.”
Sheriff Todd Johns of Plumas County said at the community meeting that there were no reported injuries but that the authorities were still looking for four people who were unaccounted for. He estimated that the blaze had destroyed more than 100 homes in the area.
“My heart is crushed by what has occurred there, and to the folks who have lost residences and businesses,” said Sheriff Johns, a lifelong Greenville resident.
The Dixie Fire is 35 percent contained and has burned across parts of four counties. Officials said that the blaze seemed to have spared Chester, burning around both sides of the town off Lake Almanor, but that other communities — Westwood, Crescent Mills — closer to Greenville remained under threat.
On Sunday, the authorities had lifted a mandatory evacuation order for Greenville after several days of favorable weather. But then the wind changed directions three times in two days, explosively spreading the Dixie Fire.
“We’re seeing truly frightening fire behavior, and I don’t know how to overstate that,” said Chris Carlton, supervisor for the Plumas National Forest. “We have a lot of veteran firefighters who have served for 20, 30 years and have never seen behavior like this.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for three counties on Thursday, noting that “strong winds, high temperatures, drought conditions, and dry fuels have further increased the spread” of the Antelope Fire in Siskiyou County, on the Oregon border, and the River Fire in Nevada and Placer Counties, northeast of Sacramento.
The River Fire, which has grown to 2,600 acres since starting on Wednesday, has destroyed 76 structures and injured three people, including a firefighter. It is 15 percent contained but threatens 3,400 more structures, with 24,000 people living within five miles of the blaze, according to the New York Times fire tracker.
Dixie. August Complex. Not Creative.
The top three finishers in the Belmont Stakes? No, those are the names of wildfires that have burned across the American West in recent years.
Unlike hurricanes, which are given human names from a list chosen in advance by the World Meteorological Organization, wildfires get their names in a much more intuitive way: Whatever makes it the easiest for firefighters to find a blaze and for nearby residents to consistently track the fire’s path.
Some of those burning right now include the South Yaak Fire in Montana (after the Yaak Valley), the Tamarack Fire in California (after a town) and the nation’s largest blaze this year, the Dixie Fire (after a nearby road).
Usually, fires get their names based on where they originate, fire officials have said. They’re named for winding rural roads, nearby landmarks or mountain peaks.
Although the Dixie Fire started some distance from where Dixie Road appears on maps, Rick Carhart, a Butte County spokesman for Cal Fire, California’s state fire agency, said it demonstrates how “remote and inaccessible” the blaze was for firefighters.
“Even though it didn’t start on the side of Dixie Road, it was the closest thing,” he said. Mr. Carhart noted that Dixie Road appears close to Camp Creek Road, after which 2018’s deadly Camp Fire was named.
Lynnette Round, a spokeswoman for Cal Fire, said that also means multiple blazes can end up with the same name.
There has been more than one River Fire, for instance. And in 2017, during a busy year, the blaze that came to be known as the Lilac Fire in San Diego County was actually the fifth one to be given that name.
Ms. Round said the first fire officials on the scene often name a blaze, and the moniker is almost never changed.
“If it changes, you’ll confuse people,” she said. Residents who have fled their homes might not know which fire they should be paying attention to if names shift. And fire officials might get confused about where to send resources.
Sometimes, fires burn together and effectively merge. If that happens, as it did with the Dixie Fire and the Fly Fire, officials will typically start using the larger fire’s name for both.
Last year, unusual lightning storms sparked many fires across California. “When they all run together, they become a complex fire,” Ms. Round said.
Such was the case with the August Complex, the largest fire on record in California, which burned more than a million acres last year. It ignited in August, heralding the early start of a record-breaking fire season.
Occasionally, there won’t be a significant landmark close to a fire’s ignition point. So officials will get creative. (Or not.)
That’s how, during the summer of 2015, officials named a blaze in southeast Idaho “Not Creative,” according to reports. A spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Lands told NPR the name was selected after a long day of firefighting.
California is seeing larger and more intense wildfires, putting those on the front lines at greater risk as they attempt to stop raging flames like those from the Dixie Fire that ripped through Greenville, Calif., this week.
“They’re just spreading so fast and so hot. Sometimes we feel like we’re on our heels trying to play catch-up,” said Chris Aragon, a captain with Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency. “It’s not the same behavior as the fires we were used to a decade or more ago.”
Of the 10 largest wildfires ever recorded in California, six were within the past 12 months. The Dixie Fire grew overnight to become the state’s third-largest wildfire on record and the biggest so far this season.
While most people flee from flames, the approximately 7,500 firefighters at Cal Fire run toward them, sometimes inhaling smoky air, collapsing from dehydration and working 96 hours straight.
When Captain Aragon, 36, worked as a seasonal firefighter more than a decade ago, most fires broke out between July and September, he said. The season was long if it ran through Halloween.
But the Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018, began in November. And the year before, Captain Aragon traveled to Ventura County to work on the Thomas Fire, which erupted in December.
“We all wondered if we were going to make it home for Christmas,” he said.
Mike Conaty, a Cal Fire captain with the Butte Unit, said the fires his mentors told him about — the wild, once-in-a-lifetime blazes — now happen regularly. “The last five years of my career, we’ve just blown fires like that out of the water,” Captain Conaty said.
The labor required to stop a fire’s path can be grueling. The firefighters alternate 24-hour shifts, typically sleeping in hotel rooms near the blaze instead of returning home.
Captain Conaty once collapsed from dehydration after working. Captain Aragon said he had gone 24 hours without eating, consumed with clearing brush and spraying water.
The men have grown accustomed to discomfort. The flames are often feet, if not inches, away and can feel unbearably hot. The smell of smoke lingers on their skin for days.
Firefighters wear helmets but not fitted masks, which would impede their breathing and slow them down, Captain Aragon said. So instead, they inhale smoke.
“On my first season, I was coughing up black stuff for a week or so,” he said.
Captain Conaty returned home last week from an 11-day stint fighting the Dixie Fire. He said that while his 9-year-old son was excited to see him, his 11-year-old gave him an attitude — the coping mechanism he has developed for dealing with his father being away.
“You’re kind of burning the candle at both ends most of the time,” Captain Conaty said. “You can be as prepared as you want and as used to it as you think you are, and it’s still a strain on the family.”
As large swaths of the West dry out and burn, scientists say climate change is playing an increasing role in the earlier fire seasons, the deadly heat waves and the lack of water.
The record-high temperatures that assaulted the Pacific Northwest in late June and early July, for instance, would have been all but impossible without climate change, according to a team of researchers who studied the deadly heat wave.
Heat, drought and fire are connected, and because human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases have raised baseline temperatures nearly two degrees Fahrenheit on average since 1900, heat waves, including those in the West, are becoming hotter and more frequent.
“The Southwest is getting hammered by climate change harder than almost any other part of the country, apart from perhaps coastal cities,” Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan, recently told The New York Times. “And as bad as it might seem today, this is about as good as it’s going to get if we don’t get global warming under control.”
around the world
As southern Europe grapples with one of its worst heat waves in decades, deadly forest fires have engulfed stretches of the region, bringing a newly reopened tourism industry to a halt and forcing mass evacuations.
For more than a week, raging fires have pushed residents from their homes in villages on the Greek mainland and islands and across neighboring Turkey, and forced tourists to abandon beachside destinations across the region.
In Greece overnight Thursday, thousands more people fled their homes and hundreds were evacuated by sea. Seven European Union nations were sending firefighting support on Friday, including planes from France, Sweden, Croatia and Switzerland as conditions were expected to worsen with forecasts of stronger winds in the coming days.
Triathlon athletes collapsing in near 90-degree heat. A tennis star, sweating profusely, telling an umpire that he might die.
As average temperatures rise across the globe, scientists warn, more cities will struggle — as Tokyo has — to host the Olympics in the summer months. Paris, the host of the 2024 Summer Games, experienced its hottest day on record this July, with temperatures nearing 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Los Angeles is set to host the 2028 games during the peak of wildfire season.
One analysis published in the Lancet medical journal in 2016 gives a glimpse of the future. A team of researchers predicted that by 2085, under a worst-case emissions scenario, where emissions of greenhouse gases aren’t brought under control in coming decades, just 33 of 645 major cities in the Northern Hemisphere would be able to host the Olympics in the months of July and August in a climate safe for athletes. Most of those cities were in Western Europe; only two were in Asia.
Tord Kjellstrom, an environmental and occupational health scientist, who handled the team’s data analysis, ran the same analysis for The New York Times using a more moderate emissions scenario — one that assumes the nations of the world will take enough action against climate change to stabilize planet-warming emissions shortly after 2100. He still found that only 41 cities, fewer than one in 10 of major cities in the Northern Hemisphere, would be able to safely host the games.
“Everywhere you look, temperatures are trending up,” he said. “So it’s crazy. It’s a very bad plan to keep holding these Olympic Games during the hottest period of the year.”
The researchers made a number of assumptions. They used a measure of heat stress, known as the wet-bulb globe temperature, or WBGT, a combination of temperature, humidity, heat radiation and wind. They focused on the marathon as the most demanding endurance event, and used a WBGT of 26 degrees Celsius, or about 79 degrees Fahrenheit, as a low-risk limit for the event. They also examined an “extreme risk” scenario of WBGT at 82 degrees Fahrenheit.
They examined cities with a population of more than 600,000, the lower limit among Olympic host cities in the postwar period. And they excluded the southern hemisphere, where July and August tend to be cooler; Brisbane is set to host the 2032 Summer Games starting in July, the city’s coldest month of the year. (Of course, many cities in the Southern Hemisphere face increasingly extreme heat and humidity during their own summer months.)
Jennifer Vanos, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who has studied the effects of extreme heat on athletes, cautioned that long-term predictions were challenging, and pointed to recent research that has started to show that worst-case scenarios are unlikely. Moreover, the risks posed by heat and humidity varied by sport, she said. (Athletes in some events, like short sprints, may even benefit from the heat.)
Still, “most places that are going to hold Summer Olympics are going to have to prepare for heat,” she said. “And if a host city is going to be potentially dangerously hot, or going to be dealing with something like wildfires, we have to be willing to move it.”
The summer heat concerns have added a new dimension to the climate concerns facing the Olympics. Summer heat was a concern as far back as the Atlanta Games in 1996, but more recently the concerns have generally focused on the Winter Games affected by warming temperatures and lack of snow.
Tokyo organizers have come under fire for claiming in their winning bid that Tokyo had “many days of mild and sunny weather” in summer that could provide “an ideal climate for athletes to perform at their best.”
“I think a lot of people feel misled,” said Shuhei Nomura, an associate professor of health policy and management at Keio University. Still, Tokyo likely avoided a wider debacle by banning most spectators, he said, saving crowds from having to swelter in the heat. “We would have been in big trouble.”
Of course, the International Olympic Committee could move the Games to cooler months. But ever since the Sydney Games were staged in late September to disappointing television viewership numbers, the Olympic committee has told candidate cities that the Summer Games must be scheduled between July 15 and Aug. 31, barring “exceptional circumstances.”
Moving outdoor endurance events to cooler locations — like Tokyo organizers did with the marathon races, set to take place this weekend in the northern city of Sapporo — could also become increasingly necessary, experts say. Moving those events out of big cities could help athletes escape the heat trapped by concrete buildings and streets, a phenomenon known as the heat island effect.
“One of the points we’ve made to the I.O.C. is that they should really strengthen the climate requirements for the cities that bid for the Games,” said Daniel Scott, professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo.
“There are just risks everywhere, especially in that mid-July to mid-August stretch.”