The Dixie Fire burning in two Northern California counties is now the largest single wildfire in recorded state history, exploding in size overnight as drought-stricken lands continue to fuel the flames.
The fire, which has burned for 23 days and forced mass evacuations, razed the Gold Rush town of Greenville on Thursday, destroying 91 buildings and damaging five others. Smoke from the blaze has blown to lower parts of Northern California, including the state capital of Sacramento where the air quality index on Friday reached “unhealthy” levels.
The troubling development reflects not just the dire effects of climate change and neglected forest management, but also that the electric grid remains prone to sparking wildfires. Pacific Gas & Electric disclosed last month that its equipment may have caused the catastrophic blaze.
The Dixie Fire is eerily similar to the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive blaze in state history — and sparked by PG&E. The two fires started less than 10 miles apart from each other in the Feather River Canyon, a heavily wooded area with decrepit transmission lines.
The Camp Fire leveled the towns of Paradise and Concow, destroying nearly 19,000 structures and killing 85 people. The blaze pushed PG&E to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Last summer, the utility pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges for the disaster.
By Friday morning, the Dixie Fire had burned 432,813 acres and was just 35 percent contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The blaze’s overnight growth gave it the grim distinction of becoming the largest standalone fire in state history, but it still ranks behind two multi-fire conflagrations.
The lightning-ignited 2020 August Complex burned over 1 million acres in seven counties, and the 2018 Mendocino Complex burned more than 459,000 acres in four counties. The latter was infamously caused by a man trying to plug a wasp’s nest with a hammer and stake.
Last week, the Shasta County district attorney said PG&E was “criminally liable” for the 2020 Zogg Fire that killed four people and burned over 56,000 acres. A formal complaint in that case is expected to be filed by the end of September. Earlier in the year, the Sonoma County DA hit PG&E with fire-starting and emissions charges in connection with the 2019 Kincade Fire that burned nearly 78,000 acres and injured four people.
The Dixie Fire has prompted progressives to renew calls for PG&E accountability, with members of the Reclaim Our Power campaign flooding the phone lines during Thursday’s California Public Utilities Commission meeting to urge the agency to increase oversight and enforcement of the company. Activists also want the commission to revoke PG&E’s safety certificate, which is required to access the state’s $21 billion wildfire insurance fund.
Warm temperatures, low humidity and high winds continuing to challenge firefighters working to extinguish the blaze. The Butte County and Plumas County DAs are probing PG&E over the Dixie Fire, although Cal Fire has not yet officially announced the blaze’s cause.