The Largest Single Source Wildfire In California History

In the summer of 2021, California was engulfed in what would become one of the largest fires in the state's history. The Dixie Fire took months to contain, and as of November 2021 the extent of the fire's damage, as well as the role Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) played in the blaze, is still being determined.

The Dixie Fire is second only to the 2020 August Complex fire, which also took almost three entire months to contain. But unlike the August Complex fire, which erupted out of several sources, the Dixie Fire was a single source fire that went from a single spark to almost a million acres burned to the ground.

Thankfully, no one died in the fire, and everyone who was reported missing was eventually found, but at least four firefighters ended up in the hospital after being hit by a falling tree branch. Meanwhile, hundreds of homes were destroyed, communities were devastated, and the effects of the Dixie Fire spread well past the borders of California.

The Dixie Fire

The exact cause of the fire remains unknown and is being investigated. What is certain is that on July 13, 2021, a Douglas fir fell onto a Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) powerline near the border of Butte and Plumas counties and caused a fire. According to The Washington Post, PG&E received a notice that part of their power grid had failed around 7 a.m., but they didn't notice the fire until around 4:30 p.m. Crews from California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, often called Cal Fire, arrived within an hour and started trying to contain and extinguish the fire, but by the evening the Dixie Fire had spread to one acre. By the morning of July 14, it had expanded to cover 1,200 acres.

By the beginning of August, the fire had grown to over 250,000 acres. San Francisco Chronicle reports that during the first week of August, as summer temperatures rose, the Dixie Fire "grew 50,000 acres over one 24-hour period, then grew 110,000 additional acres over the next 24 hours."

It took more than three months to finally contain the Dixie Fire. CBS Sacramento reports that on October 25, Cal Fire stated that the fire was 100% contained, thanks to "historic amounts of rainfall to Northern California over the weekend."

Once the fire is contained, the main goal will be to keep any trees that are still smoldering from starting another fire. And considering the scale of the Dixie Fire, no one is looking for an encore.

Largest single wildfire in California history

By the time the Dixie Fire was contained at the end of October 2021, it had burned across almost 1 million acres of land, "an area larger than New York City, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles combined," writes The Washington Post, ​​making it the largest single fire in the history of California. The distinction between single and complex fires depends on whether the fire stemmed from a single blaze or a combination of blazes. The only fire bigger than the Dixie Fire was the August Complex, a complex fire that burned over 1 million acres in August 2020, according to SF Gate.

KRCR reports that over 1,200 structures were destroyed in the Dixie Fire, as the high winds and low humidity made it difficult for the fire to be extinguished, and thousands more were threatened during the fire. The town of Greenville was also absolutely "decimated," according to Live Science.

Politico reports that PG&E disclosed "its equipment may have caused the catastrophic blaze." Nor is this the first fire the company is responsible for; PG&E was also responsible for the 2018 Camp Fire wildfire, which was the deadliest fire in California's history. As a result, there have been renewed calls to revoke PG&E's safety certificate and to increase oversight of the company.

Impact of the fire

The widespread effects of the Dixie Fire weren't just limited to California and the communities destroyed in its wake. Smoke from the fire spread as far as Colorado and Utah and the air quality was deemed "unhealthy" in many areas, according to USA Today. Meanwhile, up to 21 million gallons of flame retardant mixture was dropped onto the Dixie fire in an attempt to put out the blaze. A mixture of phosphate salts and water, some argue that the use of this mixture "does more damage than good" to the ecosystem.

The New York Times reports that it cost over $610 million to contain the fire, making it "the most expensive suppression campaign in California history." Between July and October 2021, California had spent "$1.1 billion trying to put out fires."

In September 2021, two lawsuits on behalf of over 200 plaintiffs were filed against PG&E, claiming that their equipment caused the Dixie Fire, PV Magazine writes. U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who's overseeing PG&E's criminal probation for a felony conviction from 2016, also called for hearings to determine what role PG&E played in the Dixie Fire. Associated Press writes that PG&E's five-year probation ends in late January 2022, and Judge Alsup has stated that PG&E "is a convicted felon that poses a safety hazard to California. My job is to rehabilitate you and that is what I am going to do until the last minute."