US Caldor Fire explodes: Homes in Grizzly Flats destroyed, evacuations along Highway 50 under way
A volatile wildfire burning in Northern California exploded overnight, razing homes in a small mountain town as dry fuels and high winds whipped the fire out of control. The Caldor Fire more than doubled in size by Wednesday morning, 18 August 2021, to cover more than 53 772 acres, burning through Grizzly Flats and levelling at least 50 homes in the hamlet of about 1 200 people east of Sacramento. At least two civilians have been injured in the fire so far.
The fire broke out Saturday and has expanded so ferociously that fire officials have struggled to estimate its size let alone damage to homes and businesses, in real time. Cal Fire said “significant resources” had been ordered to join the firefight; just 242 people were assigned to the blaze as of Wednesday morning.
The damage to Grizzly Flats was the second blow to a small Northern California town in the past two weeks. In Plumas County, the state’s biggest wildfire of the year, the 635 000-acre Dixie Fire, destroyed most of the Gold Rush-era town of Greenville in just a few hours.
On Monday, California broke a milestone of 1 million acres burned, the earliest it has ever reached that mark. Crews are battling 13 large blazes, including the Dixie and Caldor fires.
The El Dorado County sheriff’s office has ordered evacuations for residents on both sides of Highway 50, from Camino on the west to Ice House Road on the east. Those towns include Cedar Grove, Pollock Pines, Fresh Pond and Pacific House.
Weather officials meanwhile extended a Red Flag warning for the region through 20h00 Thursday, anticipating extremely dry humidity levels and big wind gusts. The warning covers much of Northern California and reaches down into the Bay Area’s North Bay Mountains and East Bay hills.
Fickle winds and smoke swirling above the flames have made it “very challenging” to predict the weather, said National Weather Service meteorologist Bill Rasch. Although southwesterly winds fanned the flames toward populated communities Tuesday, they switched directions and were largely expected to originate from the east Wednesday, he said.
Gusts were forecast to reach about 25mph over the Caldor Fire itself, NWS said,but could top 50mph along Northern California’s highest ridges and hilltops. “It was making a run towards Highway 50, but the winds … changed the threat overnight and today,” Rasch said. “The winds are not as bad as they were yesterday but we can’t really put a severity level on the Red Flag warning.”
Across the Northern Hemisphere, wildfires are sweeping areas left unusually dry this summer by drought and extreme heat blamed on climate change. A wildfire burning near the French Riviera killed one person this week and injured at least 27. A blaze outside Athens is forcing villages to evacuate.
In California, utility giant PG&E Corporation cut power to about 51 000 homes and businesses in fire-prone areas to prevent electrical lines from sparking more blazes if they toppled from high winds. The company said it would black out customers in parts of 18 counties.
Dixie is the second-largest in California’s history. It’s been burning for more than a month, growing to 635 728 acres Wednesday morning and destroying more than 1 200 structures, according to Cal Fire.
Across the Golden State, 6 540 fires this year have torched at least 1 800 structures. No deaths were reported through Tuesday.
As drastic as California’s fire season has been so far, it is still weeks away from its peak, when the Santa Ana and Diablo winds start to blow from the east. As summer weather patterns give way to fall, large high-pressure systems typically build over the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah, sending winds rushing from the east to low-pressure systems that often develop off the Pacific coast.
These winds dry out and heat up as they cross California’s mountain ranges, allowing them to fan any sparks they catch into major fires. Four of the state’s five most destructive fires occurred in October and November.
The danger often doesn’t pass until winter rain and snow squelch the flames. But the possibility of another La Nina event this fall and winter, the second in as many years, could bring California another dry winter.
Temperatures will range from the 70s to 90s through the rest of the week in the Sacramento area, Rasch said. Air quality alerts due to smoke pollution have spread across the West, including through California’s Central Valley and covering almost all of Idaho and Wyoming.
Although winds were expected to quiet down slightly through the end of the week, meteorologists are closely watching another weather pattern that could arrive over the weekend.
“Right now it doesn’t look nearly as bad as this,” Rasch said, meaning Tuesday’s dramatic flare-up, “but it looks like wind might pick up again Saturday.”
Source: Associated Press, Bloomberg