The Dixie fire threatened to pass 1 million acres, then was stopped in its tracks. Here's how

Tiffany Lozano takes a photograph of a melted street sign in Greenville, Calif. while Kelly Tan watches. The Dixie fire destroyed the town. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Few could have predicted that the Dixie fire would grow into the monstrous monster it became when it erupted in Plumas County in July. The only thing that made the Dixie fire the second largest wildfire in California history was a downed tree and a short ring of flames.

It produced a series of ominous signs over the weeks and days that followed the fire's start, including its own lightning and burning across the Sierra. The worst was when it decimated Greenville.

It was soon threatening to exceed the August Complex of 2020 in size, the largest wildfire that had ever struck California, and which scorched more than 1,000,000 acres.

After nearly two months of continuous expansion, something changed. The weather became more favorable and the fire terrain flattened out overnight. Crews were able turn the corner on the huge blaze. At approximately 963,000 acres, the Dixie fire seemed to have stopped growing. It was 94% contained as of Friday.

It was a victory that was hard won. Experts say that there are many lessons to be learned from Dixie fire, an unprecedented fire in an era of unprecedented fires.

Scott Stephens, a professor at UC Berkeley of fire science, said that "We can't get used" to these numbers. "This size is mind-blowing."

Experts said that the Dixie fire spread quickly and was a sign of how severe drought and extreme heat are affecting California's overgrown landscape. This also highlighted the need to take proactive steps to prevent similar large-scale fires.

"The Dixie Fire is the last, nail-in the-coffin piece evidence that traditional firefighting techniques are not up to the challenge posed by wildfires like those we have in the 2020s," stated Chris Field, director at Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment. "Basically, the fire leapt over all that we would have considered traditional defensible fire lines."

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Field pointed out that the Dixie fire's growth was due to a number of factors, including the century of suppression that allowed vegetation to build up in state forests. The Dixie fire ignited the drought-dried vegetation, which was able to meet with the Dixie fire's embers, making it "carve its own way like a glacier."

Field stated that it was a frightening confirmation of the extent of fuel buildup. "And basically, we're now in an era where you can drop a match, a burning ember, or any other item, you get a new flame. This vulnerability is very difficult to manage.

The August Complex wasn't the anomaly that many had hoped. This was also proven by the Dixie fire. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, six of the ten largest fires in California's history were started in the past two years.

In many ways, the Dixie Fire was even more terrifying than the August Complex. The blaze consisted of over 30 smaller fires that were lit by lightning in Northern California.

The fire was merged with one smaller flame to create a single inferno.

Tim Phelps, incident spokesperson for the Dixiefire, stated that this Dixie fire is only one fire. It is still uncharted territory.

Phelps stated that the crucial dryness of the land helped to encourage the fire's growth through July and August.

He said that this year's unique feature is how dry the material is. These fuels are extremely receptive to fire because they have not had enough moisture for so long. Fire spreads quicker and easier than it does.

Residents were warned by fire crews for months that the conditions were dangerous.

The record-breaking dryness of the vegetation was before fire season and it became even drier during the drought. Worsening drought conditions caused the state's reservoirs and officials across the West to declare water emergencies.

Joe Zwierzchowski (an incident spokesperson for the Dixie fire’s east zone) stated that wind and terrain were a major factor early on. He noted that the rugged, steep terrain made it difficult for crews get to the fire. The powder keg of worst-case scenarios is created when you add high winds and dry conditions.

These conditions lasted several weeks and were difficult to contain. The wind stopped and the winds slowed down. He said, "It reached a point where we could fight fire."

Officials in the west zone of the fire also said that they were able to overcome the flames because of the rain and the slower winds. After months of defensive maneuvers, the crews finally were able to move forward with bulldozers & hoses.

Chris Ziegler, spokesperson for west zone, stated that "Everything basically had the right spot at a right time, for first time on the fire."

Ziegler also credits a history in prescribed burns, including one in Warner Valley this spring, for slowing down the spread of the fire and protecting communities along its path. Prescribed burns are used to clear dry vegetation before wildfires can start.

He said that the burn scars from nearby fires such as the Walker, Hog and Sheep fires, along with the Beckwourth Complex fires also helped because they didn't have enough fuel, which meant the flames had nowhere to go.

Smart firefighting was a great help, but timing and luck were equally important in stopping the Dixie fire. The behavior of the blaze was unpredictable and erratic throughout its entire run.

Field stated that the essential characteristic of mega-fires was that there is no way to extinguish them when they are in their prime habitat.

Stephens of UC Berkeley said that the most important piece of the puzzle was the overgrown forest conditions. The landscape in some areas was so dry that it was almost impossible to imagine an airborne ember lighting a spot fire.

He said that the fires of this year were very effective at spotting and spreading themselves just by embers.

Stephens shared the same view as others who have studied the state's fires. He said that decades worth of inaction combined with climate change, droughts over the past two years were the perfect ingredients for the Dixie fire. They kept fuel moistures low and made them highly receptive.

Stephens stated that the Dixie fire showed the vulnerability of our forests, and the landscape. Climate change and drought increase vulnerability. But the most important piece of information I would still mention is the condition our forest. It's 75% of the problem.

Many ecologists agree that fire is essential and healthy for California's landscape. Prescribed burns are already being credited for saving California's beloved giant trees from the KNP Complex fire in Sequoia National Park.

Stephens stated that the Dixie fire may also be beneficial for the state's landscape. Although there were areas that suffered severe damage, the majority of the fires burned in moderate conditions.

He said, "But the problem with the price is that it is too high." "The price is Greenville exploding, 700 homes being lost, and entire economies being disrupted over the next few months."

He said that fewer wildfires and controlled burns, along with the reintroduction and protection of Indigenous burning practices, may be the best way forward for the state. This will create a mosaic that can prevent wildfires such as the Dixie from growing out of control.

However, it will take renewed effort and resources to transition into a more "stewardship mode", where fuel treatments can be performed and maintained at scale. Governor. Gavin Newsom signed Thursday a $15 billion climate package. This is the largest state-level climate investment ever made. It includes about $1.5 billion for wildfire mitigation and forest resilience.

If passed, President Biden's infrastructure bill would provide more than $3B for wildfire risk reduction. This includes controlled burns, infrastructure projects, and structural defense. All of these will be very much needed in the coming years.

Multiple experts believe that the alternative to this work is one of many Dixie fires.

This story first appeared in Los Angeles Times.