A small California town was largely destroyed Tuesday, the second mountain community nearly leveled by a blaze in two weeks in the state, as firefighters worked to contain multiple wildfires spreading dangerously close to communities.
The Dixie Fire spurred a new round of evacuation orders Tuesday as fierce winds helped it grow and push the monstrous blaze within about 8 miles of Susanville, California, population about 18,000.
Late Tuesday, Pacific Gas & Electric said it has begun shutting off power to about 51,000 customers in 18 Northern California counties to prevent wildfires. The utility company announced that it has begun enacting the shutoffs as a precaution to prevent gusting winds from damaging power lines and sparking blazes in a tinder-dry region that already is struggling with a series of wildfires that have destroyed hundreds of homes.
Meanwhile, to the southeast, a small blaze called the Caldor Fire exploded through Grizzly Flats, a town of about 1,200.
Very few homes were left standing in Grizzly Flats, where streets were littered with downed power lines and poles. Houses were reduced to smoldering ash and twisted metal with only chimneys rising above the ruins. A post office and elementary school were also destroyed.
Fire officials estimated that at least 50 homes had burned in the area since the fire erupted Saturday and two people were hospitalized with serious injuries.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency in El Dorado County. Authorities were considering closing the entire El Dorado National Forest, where the 46 square mile fire burns.
It marks the second northern California community destroyed by a blaze this month as thousands of residents fled without assurances their homes would be there when they returned. The Dixie Fire ravaged the gold rush town of Greenville on Aug. 4, about two weeks ago. The blaze left a trail of destruction in the historic downtown area that features buildings built in the 1800s and throughout the 1849 gold rush. A gas station, hotel and bar were among many fixtures destroyed by flames.
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‘Next 24 hours are going to be crucial’: Dixie Fire approaches large town
The Dixie Fire has exploded since its beginning on July 13. At 979 square miles, it is the largest single wildfire in state history, and the largest of nearly 100 major wildfires burning across more than a dozen Western states. The wildfires, in large part, have been fueled by high temperatures, strong winds and dry weather that have left trees, brush and grasslands as flammable as tinder.
Numerous resources were put into Susanville, the county seat of Lassen County and the largest city the Dixie Fire has approached. Its 15,000 residents were warned to be ready to evacuate due to the approaching Dixie Fire, said Mark Brunton, an operations section chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“It’s not out of play, and the next 24 hours are going to be crucial to watch as to what the fire is going to do there,” he told an online briefing.
Firefighters defended homes and pushed back the Dixie Fire from entering the community of Janesville after spot fires took off Monday night. But it was a fight to keep it that way Tuesday as winds push the flames toward Susanville and Janesville.
The crews on Monday were able to “herd the fire around the majority of the community,” Brunton said.
The fire destroyed some structures along the Highway 395 corridor and crossed the highway, continuing to spread east, he said. The winds will test the fire lines that firefighters built.
Dixie Fire public information officer Luis Jimenez said that new development could either help or hinder firefighting efforts, depending on which way the wind blows, as the flames reach sagebrush-covered terrain. He recommended residents in the Susanville area be prepared to evacuate, and consider leaving early.
“The best thing would be that if you’re in a warning or in an area that says it has a warning, have it planned,” Jimenez said. ”You don’t have to wait until you actually get to an order, you might as well be safe and get out now before things get chaotic.”
School administrators in Nevada delay start times due to wildfire smoke
Across the state line in Nevada, school administrators delayed start times in the Reno-Sparks because of a cloak of wildfire smoke from the Dixie Fire blanketing the region. Smoke plumes from the Caldor Fire were also visible from northern Nevada.
Two dozen fires were burning in Montana and nearly 50 more in Idaho, Washington and Oregon, according to the National Fire Interagency Center.
In Montana, authorities ordered evacuations on Tuesday for several remote communities in north-central Montana as strong winds propelled a large wildfire toward inhabited areas.
The mandatory evacuation covered Lodge Pole, a town of about 300 people on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, and the former mining town of Zortman, which has about two dozen people, KOJM reported.
Contributing: Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY; Associated Press