‘There is nothing left’: After a town is wiped out, wildfires threaten more of California.


Extreme Weather and Climate Updates

Aug. 6, 2021, 9:35 a.m. ET

Aug. 6, 2021, 9:35 a.m. ET

The Dixie Fire ravaged the historic town of Greenville in Plumas County, Calif., on Wednesday, leaving its main street in rubble. Other parts of the county were also completely burned.CreditCredit…Josh Edelson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

After the Dixie Fire destroyed the Gold Rush town of Greenville, Calif., local officials said they were hopeful that improving weather conditions on Friday would help firefighters prevent the blaze from dealing further damage.

At a community meeting on Thursday night, a meteorologist told residents of threatened towns several hours north of Sacramento that winds were expected to decrease and that the wildfire smoke would keep temperatures on the ground cooler. He said there was no sign of the strong weather systems that had plagued this week.

But nobody was resting easy after seeing the destruction that shifting winds had brought to Greenville, a town of about 1,000 people.

“It looks like a bomb went off,” said Ryan Meacher, 37, whose father’s house in Greenville was one of many that burned down. “There is nothing left.”

Mr. Meacher lives in Grass Valley, which is itself being threatened by the River Fire, and said it was heartbreaking to think about what was lost in Greenville — the library where he would pick up books and VHS tapes, the pizza place next door with an arcade.

Also destroyed was a charter school where Kjessie Essue’s husband works and the Cy Hall Memorial Museum, which covered the history of Indian Valley and which her parents spent hundreds of hours building.

Ms. Essue, 38, lives in nearby Taylorsville and evacuated south on Thursday with her Nigerian Dwarf goats, her husband, her three young children and her parents, who do not know whether their Greenville home still stands.

She said it seemed liked a movie as they packed up, with an alarm blaring and wild winds sending a smoke plume with a black center toward the area.

“Greenville is a wasteland,” she said. “It’s surreal.”

Sheriff Todd Johns of Plumas County said at the community meeting that there were no reported injuries but that the authorities were still looking for four people who were unaccounted for. He estimated that the blaze, now the sixth-largest in recorded California history, had destroyed more than 100 homes in the area.

“My heart is crushed by what has occurred there, and to the folks who have lost residences and businesses,” said Sheriff Johns, a lifelong Greenville resident.

The Dixie Fire is 35 percent contained and has burned more than 420,000 acres across four counties. Officials said that the blaze seemed to have spared Chester, burning around both sides of the town off Lake Alomar, but that other communities — Westwood, Chester Mills — closer to Greenville remained under threat.

On Sunday, the authorities had lifted a mandatory evacuation order for Greenville after several days of favorable weather. But then the wind changed directions three times in two days, explosively spreading the Dixie Fire.

“We’re seeing truly frightening fire behavior, and I don’t know how to overstate that,” said Chris Carlton, supervisor for the Plumas National Forest. “We have a lot of veteran firefighters who have served for 20, 30 years and have never seen behavior like this.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for three counties on Thursday, noting that “strong winds, high temperatures, drought conditions, and dry fuels have further increased the spread” of the Antelope Fire in Siskiyou County, on the Oregon border, and the River Fire in Nevada and Placer Counties, northeast of Sacramento.

The River Fire, which has grown to 2,600 acres since starting on Wednesday, has destroyed 76 structures and injured three people, including a firefighter. It is 15 percent contained but threatens 3,400 more structures, with 24,000 people living within five miles of the blaze, according to the New York Times fire tracker.

Smoldering buildings were left in the wake of the Dixie Fire after it ripped through downtown Greenville, Calif.
Credit…Josh Edelson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

California is seeing larger and more intense wildfires, putting those on the front lines at greater risk as they attempt to stop raging flames like those from the Dixie Fire that ripped through Greenville, Calif., this week.

“They’re just spreading so fast and so hot. Sometimes we feel like we’re on our heels trying to play catch-up,” said Chris Aragon, a captain with Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency. “It’s not the same behavior as the fires we were used to a decade or more ago.”

Of the 10 largest wildfires ever recorded in California, six were within the past 12 months. The Dixie Fire is the state’s sixth-largest on record and the biggest so far this season.

While most people flee from flames, the approximately 7,500 firefighters at Cal Fire run toward them, sometimes inhaling smoky air, collapsing from dehydration and working 96 hours straight.

When Captain Aragon, 36, worked as a seasonal firefighter more than a decade ago, most fires broke out between July and September, he said. The season was long if it ran through Halloween.

But the Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018, began in November. And the year before, Captain Aragon traveled to Ventura County to work on the Thomas Fire, which erupted in December.

“We all wondered if we were going to make it home for Christmas,” he said.

Credit…Nic Coury for The New York Times

Mike Conaty, a Cal Fire captain with the Butte Unit, said the fires his mentors told him about — the wild, once-in-a-lifetime blazes — now happen regularly. “The last five years of my career, we’ve just blown fires like that out of the water,” Captain Conaty said.

The labor required to stop a fire’s path can be grueling. The firefighters alternate 24-hour shifts, typically sleeping in hotel rooms near the blaze instead of returning home.

Captain Conaty once collapsed from dehydration after working. Captain Aragon said he had gone 24 hours without eating, consumed with clearing brush and spraying water.

The men have grown accustomed to discomfort. The flames are often feet, if not inches, away and can feel unbearably hot. The smell of smoke lingers on their skin for days.

Firefighters wear helmets but not fitted masks, which would impede their breathing and slow them down, Captain Aragon said. So instead, they inhale smoke.

“On my first season, I was coughing up black stuff for a week or so,” he said.

Captain Conaty returned home last week from an 11-day stint fighting the Dixie Fire. He said that while his 9-year-old son was excited to see him, his 11-year-old gave him an attitude — the coping mechanism he has developed for dealing with his father being away.

“You’re kind of burning the candle at both ends most of the time,” Captain Conaty said. “You can be as prepared as you want and as used to it as you think you are, and it’s still a strain on the family.”

Some of the largest wildfires in U.S. history are burning across the American West this summer, charring vast swaths of forest land and threatening communities.

This interactive map built by The New York Times, using government and satellite data, is tracking wildfires as they spread across Western states. Check back regularly for updates.

Remnants of the Bootleg Fire near Klamath Falls, Oregon, on Saturday.
Credit…U.S. Forest Service, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As large swaths of the West dry out and burn, scientists say climate change is playing an increasing role in the earlier fire seasons, the deadly heat waves and the lack of water.

The record-high temperatures that assaulted the Pacific Northwest in late June and early July, for instance, would have been all but impossible without climate change, according to a team of researchers who studied the deadly heat wave.

Heat, drought and fire are connected, and because human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases have raised baseline temperatures nearly two degrees Fahrenheit on average since 1900, heat waves, including those in the West, are becoming hotter and more frequent.

“The Southwest is getting hammered by climate change harder than almost any other part of the country, apart from perhaps coastal cities,” Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan, recently told The New York Times. “And as bad as it might seem today, this is about as good as it’s going to get if we don’t get global warming under control.”

Of the 10,000 saguaros surveyed in Saguaro National Park for a National Park Service report on climate change and the saguaro, only 70 were younger than 11 years old.
Credit…Cassidy Araiza for The New York Times

ORO VALLEY, Ariz. — It began with a flash of lightning, the fire that swept across the rugged Santa Catalina Mountains on Tucson’s edge. By the time firefighters got the blaze under control, it had torched thousands of saguaros, the towering cactuses that can reach heights of 60 feet and live for 200 years.

The loss was gut-wrenching for many in Arizona, where Indigenous peoples learned to draw sustenance from the treelike saguaros long before they emerged as a celebrated symbol of the Southwest. Some saguaros are still standing within the year-old scar of the Bighorn Fire, their trunks singed all the way up to their limbs, a testament to their reputation as masters of desert survival.

Still, said Benjamin Wilder, an authority on saguaros and director of the University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory in Tucson, the fire-damaged cactuses would likely have their life spans curtailed.

“I don’t think there’s any more near-misses as we get to the point of much larger fires,” he said.

Wildfires are just one of many threats facing saguaros, menacing not only the cactuses but the mesquite, ironwood and palo verde plants that protect them. At the same time, the unfettered growth of invasive species, especially the very flammable buffelgrass, has spurred more competition for scarce water resources while also fueling fast-moving — and hotter — fires.

Credit…Cassidy Araiza for The New York Times

Then there is the urban sprawl of Arizona’s towns and cities. While laws generally protect saguaros from being chopped down — try that in Arizona and you can face years in prison — plant physiologists say that all the concrete in metro areas absorbs heat and holds on to it. That creates nighttime temperatures higher than in the open desert, making it harder for saguaros to minimize water loss.

Taken separately, saguaros, which can be exceptionally resilient once they mature, could possibly respond and adapt to each hazard. But scientists warn that climate change may be turbocharging all the threats at once, leveling a striking array of challenges against the iconic saguaro. (How to tell if people are new to Arizona? They pronounce the cactus’s name using a hard “g,” instead of saying suh-wahr-ohs.)

Some troubling signs are already raising alarm bells for admirers of the tallest cactus in the United States. Of the 10,000 saguaros surveyed in Saguaro National Park for a National Park Service report on climate change and the saguaro, only 70 were younger than 11 years old, and they were found almost exclusively in rocky foothill habitats.

“Establishment of young saguaros has nearly ceased since the early 1990s in nearly all habitats,” the scientists who wrote the report said, noting that the population decline in young saguaros took place during a period when temperatures in the Sonoran Desert began rising and the area entered a long-term drought.

around the world

Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As southern Europe grapples with one of its worst heat waves in decades, deadly forest fires have engulfed stretches of the region, bringing a newly reopened tourism industry to a halt and forcing mass evacuations.

Here is a collection of images from recent days.

For more than a week, raging fires have pushed residents from their homes in villages on the Greek mainland and islands and across neighboring Turkey, and forced tourists to abandon beachside destinations across the region.

In Greece overnight Thursday, thousands more people fled their homes and hundreds were evacuated by sea. Seven European Union nations were sending firefighting support on Friday, including planes from France, Sweden, Croatia and Switzerland as conditions were expected to worsen with forecasts of stronger winds in the coming days.

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