With erratic winds and dry lightning threatening to make already stark conditions worse, firefighters from Northern California to Oregon struggled Sunday to control rapidly expanding blazes that forced thousands of residents to flee their homes and prompted officials to close access to major highways and trails as well as cancel long-anticipated events.
A red-flag warning is expected to last through Monday for most of the same areas and high-elevation sections of the Bay Area because of the heightened risk of lightning sparking new flames across severely parched landscapes. The pace of wildfires in the West is already running ahead of last year as more than 90% of the Western U.S. is gripped by drought, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor.
The largest wildfire currently burning in the U.S. — dubbed the Bootleg Fire — grew by more than 476 square miles, or an area about the size of Los Angeles, on Sunday in southern Oregon just north of the California border. More than 2,000 residents of a largely rural area of lakes and wildlife refuges have been asked to evacuate.
Meanwhile, a conflagration near the scar of California’s deadliest wildfire — the 2018 Camp Fire — continues to scorch more land. The Dixie Fire has doubled in size over the past two days, growing to 15,074 acres with 15% containment as of Sunday. However, Cal Fire’s Sean Norman said Sunday that the blaze was burning in unpopulated areas with little chance for destruction.
Slightly south of the Dixie Fire, National Forest officials in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range announced Sunday that they were closing a 26-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail after another roaring Northern California blaze continued on a dangerous path.
The Tamarack Fire, which began nearly two weeks ago in Alpine County south of Lake Tahoe, exploded from 500 acres Friday night to 18,299 as of Sunday morning, threatening the county’s government center in Markleeville, according to the latest incident report. U.S. Forest officials originally estimated that the fire had expanded to 21,000 acres but later revised that estimate based on more refined mapping tools. It remains 0% contained.
The fire was ignited by a lightning strike on July 4 but remained relatively inactive, burning only in a small remote territory until late Friday.
On July 10, when the fire was only a quarter-acre wide, U.S. Forest officials said they made a “tactical management decision” not to dispatch fire crews because of safety concerns, but added that it was “not an unresponsive approach.”
“The fire is surrounded by granite rocks, a small lake and sparse fuels. Fire poses no threat to the public, infrastructure or resource values,” read a Facebook post from the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest at that time.
National Forest officials say the fire’s rapid growth was fueled by strong winds late Friday into Saturday, coupled with critically dry forest land and low humidity. Dry thunderstorms, lightning and erratic winds also were in the local forecast for Monday, placing an area known for its awe-inspiring scenery and historic significance in further jeopardy.
Alpine is California’s least-populated county situated near the California-Nevada state line with less than 1,200 residents — many of whom have been forced to flee their homes due to the blaze.
Evacuations have been issued for the historic communities of Markleeville, Alpine Village and Woodfords along California Highway 89, as well as Grover Hot Springs State Park and several campgrounds and resorts in the area, according to the U.S. Forest Service. California Route 89 was closed south of Markleeville at the intersection with Highway 4.
The fire has destroyed at least three structures but no injuries have been reported, according to the Alpine County Sheriff’s Office.
#TamarackFire update for Sunday, July 18: Fire estimated at 18,299 acres; 0% contained; 517 personnel assigned. Red Flag Warning from 11 a.m. today to 11 a.m. tomorrow. T-storms predicted this afternoon may cause erratic winds in the fire area. pic.twitter.com/VoRGC9Ou5P
— Humboldt Toiyabe NF (@HumboldtToiyabe) July 18, 2021
The Pacific Crest Trail is closed from California State Route 4, known as Ebbetts Pass, to California State Route 88, known as Carsons Pass. The Death Ride, a beloved 103-mile cycling race that starts and ends in Markleeville and takes place across the Sierras, was canceled Saturday, prompting thousands of riders and spectators to quickly desert their plans.
Theresa Harrington, 60, of Walnut Creek, was staying at the Creekside Lodge in Markleeville on Friday night with her boyfriend who was supposed to participate in the race the next day.
By late Friday afternoon, Harrington said she could see flames from the hotel, but event organizers and sheriff’s deputies didn’t seem too worried at first, saying that they would make a decision by midnight. But around 7 p.m., deputies went through the small downtown strip with their sirens on, finally giving the order to evacuate.
“A lot of people came from far away, so I can understand why there was some reluctance,” she said. “…But I just wonder why more wasn’t done sooner to control it because the winds were visibly picking up and everyone was kind of standing around.
It wasn’t until they started heading north on Highway 89 to evacuate that Harrington said she saw her first fire engine.
“It just seemed like there was a real lack of a sense of urgency, considering what ended up happening,” she said.
Although a spell of dry lightning is what helped fuel California’s historic wildfire season last year, National Weather Service meteorologist Brayden Murdock remained optimistic that the weather events expected over the next couple of days would not cause quite as much damage.
“For last year’s event, the deck was stacked against us,” Murdock said. “Although we have the chance for dry lightning again, the events are quite different.”
Unlike last year, there is more moisture in the air in Northern California and the region is not expected to see abnormally high temperatures this week, he said.
Still, Murdock advised residents in affected areas to pack a to-go bag, know their evacuation routes and check on neighbors and family members.
“Most important, of course,” he said, “is to always try to stay in the loop.”