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Q&A: Wildfire Scientist Says People Should Stay Vigilant During Dixie Fire

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CAL FIRE Butte Unit/Butte County Fire Department
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Dixie Fire

*Evacuations have changed since this story was posted. You can find more information on the current status of evacuations on the Dixie Fire here.

After originally starting near the ignition site of the 2018 Camp Fire, the Dixie Fire is now burning entirely in Plumas County, according to Cal Fire. The agency reported Thursday afternoon that although smoke might be visible in some communities, the fire is continuing to move away from populated areas.

While that appears to be good news for nearby residents, in an interview with NSPR on Wednesday, wildfire scientist Zeke Lunder said those in the area shouldn’t let their guard down just yet. That’s because the Dixie Fire is burning into an area that’s seen a lot of commercial timber harvest, Lunder said, which is the same type of landscape the Bear Fire (later called the North Complex) burned into last September.

The Bear Fire was sparked by lightning on Aug. 17, 2020. Twenty-two days later, on Sept. 8, strong winds pushed the fire to make a massive run from Plumas County to Butte County in fewer than 24 hours. The fire killed 16 people and destroyed more than 2,000 buildings in Berry Creek and Feather Falls.

On why Lunder says people should stay watchful of the Dixie Fire

The day that the Bear Fire made it’s big run, it burned through a similar patchwork of fuel types and the mix of kind of young stands and older stands. It’s a place where fires can spread quickly through spotting – that’s really what we saw last year during the Bear Fire – and so I think it’s worth being aware that the fuels are at record dryness and we’ve seen the potential in previous fires – like the Camp Fire and Bear Fire – and so just because it’s not near any communities or anything right now, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be extremely vigilant.

On the Bear Fire’s extremely fast spread last September

It ran all the way from up above LaPorte down to Lake Oroville, so like 35 miles or something in a single burning period. We don’t have forecast winds that are anything like what happened. That was really extraordinary winds. But the fuel conditions are really dry and the fuel type is similar in the area the fire is burning to the fuel types that we saw around Feather Falls where the fire really spread by spotting. On the webcams [Wednesday] morning, I was seeing long-range spotting, and that’s at like 9 in the morning, which it’s not common. So I think it’s just worth being heads up because of the critical fuel moistures and the mix of fuels that we know are conducive to spreading fires quickly.

On general advice for people this fire season

Pay attention. If you can see a big fire from your house, you should be ready to leave. The past few years we’ve seen that there’s potential for fires that really exceed our expectations. So, I don’t mean that if you live in Chico and you can see a fire in the foothills that you pack up. But I mean, if you live in Forest Ranch and you can go on your deck and see a big fire or you can drive a little ways up the road and see a big fire, you should pay attention, especially if you have kind of continuous forest fuels between you and the fire.

On the importance of helping spread information during a fire

Make sure the people that you know that may not have the internet or Twitter or other tools that a lot of us in town are used to having, make sure that you get a hold of people if you have concerns for your friends in the foothills. Make an effort to get a hold of them and just make sure they know what’s going on.

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As of Thursday afternoon, evacuations were still in place for the Dixie Fire. The Butte County Sheriff’s Office reminded residents on Wednesday that fire conditions can change rapidly and urged nearby residents to be prepared and have a plan for their family and pets. As fires have broken out across the North State over the past few weeks, fire officials throughout the region have been asking residents to be sure they’ve signed up for their county’s emergency alerts.