QUINCY – With a fresh round of dry lightning strikes and high, gusty winds expected to sweep across Northern California starting Thursday night, fire crews braced for increased fire danger that could both worsen conditions for the Dixie and Caldor firefights and potentially spark new blazes.
The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag warning in anticipation of intense winds and the threat of rain-free lightning. The warning was set to last from 5 p.m. Thursday to 11 a.m. Friday for the North and East Bay regions and until 11 p.m. Friday from the Sacramento area all the way to north of Redding.
The 4,500 firefighters fighting the Caldor Fire in El Dorado, Alpine and Amador counties prepared for the shifting weather to usher in stormy conditions from the southwest toward the northeast, where crews have been largely successful so far in protecting the densely populated Lake Tahoe area.
Rob Clark, a Cal Fire fire behavior analyst, warned crews that the gusty winds — and the prospect of lightning on the outskirts of the fire zone — could increase spotting up to three-quarters of a mile in front of the fire and put more trees at risk of falling.
“There is a big change in the weather, and it’s very critical that everybody pays attention to what’s going on,” Clark said. “Our fire has a lot of heat interior, a lot of islands that have not been burned — that provides the opportunity for an ignition source, the winds provide the transport, and the convection will provide the lift to get those embers over our lines.”
Although the blaze has been largely contained along its western flank, crews were still racing to remove vegetation and trees, protect buildings with hoses and patrol areas near Kirkwood Mountain Resort near the fire’s southeastern finger and communities bordering South Lake Tahoe on the northeastern corner.
Since breaking out on Aug. 14, the fire has burned 217,946 acres and was 53% contained as of Thursday. It has destroyed 998 structures, damaged 80 and injured five people, per Cal Fire.
Meanwhile, about 100 miles north in Shasta County, evacuation orders were issued for the community of Old Station, as well as residences on roads between the Lassen National Park entrance and the Bridge Campground and residences on Highway 44 from the Lassen County line, as the Dixie Fire surged northward,. In Lassen County, the area north of Highway 44 from the county line east to Pitville Road and north to Blacks Mountain/Forest Service Route 32NO2 was also under an evacuation order.
Cal Fire Operations Section Chief Tony Brownell said in a briefing that the flames had become “very dynamic” near Highway 44, with at least one spot fire reported near Poison Lake as crews battled to stop it from crossing the roadway.
“The fire is outside our primary line but still within our secondary (line), but it’s making a significant run to the northeast,” Brownell said. “It’s burning actively — faster than we can keep pace with.”
Although the storm system was expected to bring strong winds and isolated thunderstorms — along with about a hundredth of an inch of rain starting late Thursday — the moisture will not offer much of a reprieve, said Jack Messick, an incident meteorologist. Temperatures were forecast to fall 15 degrees Thursday and Friday but then rise again over the weekend.
“Even if an area got a quarter of an inch or half an inch, which is pretty unlikely, that’s not going to make up for 15 months of drought,” Messick said. “It’s just not. … While any little bit of rain helps, it’s not going to help in a big, significant way.”
As of Thursday morning, the Dixie Fire covered 927,320 acres and was 59% contained, according to Cal Fire. The fire, which ignited July 13, has killed one person and destroyed 1,282 structures, including 688 single-family residences.