Hot, gusty weather could mean explosive growth of California’s largest wildfire

Thousands of firefighters have prepared for a tougher fight against California’s largest wildfire as extremely dangerous weather returns, threatening to stoke flames into explosive growth.

Firefighters were able to save homes and hold large stretches of the blaze, but a red flag warning was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon through Thursday because of hot, bone-dry conditions, with winds up to 64 km/h. That could drive flames through timber, brush and grass, especially along the northern and northeastern sides of the vast wildfire.

“I think we definitely have a few hard days ahead of us,” said Shannon Prather with the U.S. Forest Service.

The Dixie fire jumped perimeter lines in a few spots Tuesday, prompting additional evacuation orders for some 15,000 people, fire officials said.

Firefighters prevented flames on Monday from reaching homes in the small northern California community of Greenville near the Plumas National Forest as the three-week-old fire grew to more than 1,024 square kilometres across Plumas and Butte counties.

Nick Beaucage loads a bike onto a trailer while evacuating from Chester, Calif., on Tuesday. Officials issued evacuations orders for the town earlier in the day as dry and windy conditions led to increased wildfire activity. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

On Tuesday, spot fires jumped some of the perimeters and burned several acres of brush on the western side of the blaze, even though crews had cut back areas of unburned fuel with bulldozers and dumped some 870,600 litres of fire retardant, said Mike Wink, a state fire operations section chief.

Heat from the flames also created a pyrocumulus cloud, a massive column of smoke that rose more than 9,100 metres into the air, he said.

The fire has threatened thousands of homes and destroyed 67 houses and other buildings since breaking out July 14. It was 35 per cent contained.

About 240 kilometres west of California’s Dixie fire, the lightning-sparked McFarland fire threatened remote homes along the Trinity River in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The fire was only five per cent contained. It was burning fiercely through drought-stricken vegetation and had doubled in size every day, fire officials warned.

Weather warnings

Similar risky weather was expected across Southern California, where heat advisories and warnings were issued for interior valleys, mountains and deserts for much of the week.

Heat waves and historic drought tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight in the U.S. West. Scientists say climate change has made the region much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

More than 20,000 firefighters and support personnel were battling 97 large, active wildfires covering 7,560 square kilometres in 13 U.S. states, the National Interagency Fire Center said.

Montana had 25 active large blazes, followed by Idaho with 21 and Oregon with 13. California had 11.

In Hawaii, firefighters gained control over the 160-square-kilometre Nation fire that forced thousands of people to evacuate over the weekend and destroyed at least two homes on the Big Island.

In southern Oregon, lightning struck parched forests hundreds of times in a 24-hour period, igniting 50 new wildfires. But firefighters and aircraft attacked the flames before they spread out of control and no homes were immediately threatened.

Meanwhile, Oregon’s Bootleg fire, the country’s largest at 1,676 square kilometres, was 84 per cent contained and firefighters were busy mopping up hot spots and strengthening fire lines.

“Crews are working tirelessly to ensure we are as prepared as we can be for the extreme fire weather forecast for the next couple days,” a U.S. Forest Service update said.

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