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Q&A: High Winds And Steep Terrain Make The Dixie Fire Hard To Contain

Dixie-Fire-grows-over-11000-acres-overnight.jpeg
Noah Berger
/
AP Photo
The Dixie Fire burning along Highway 70 on Friday, July 16, 2021 in Plumas National Forest, Calif.

As of 8 a.m. Tuesday, the Dixie Fire was nearly 60,000 acres and 15% contained. Nearly 2,500 personnel are working to fight the fire — battling steep terrain and unpredictable winds.

NSPR’s Alec Stutson spoke with Dixie Fire Public Information Officer Edwin Zuniga on Tuesday about the weather conditions on the fire front. Here are the highlights from their conversation.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

On the Dixie Fire’s pyrocumulus cloud and how it can create its own weather

It (the smoke column) accumulates over the fire, and basically kind of stacks up. Once it hits a certain elevation … it just collapses above the fire. All that force that accumulates throughout the day, or, (over) a couple of hours ... then falls down directly onto the fire. What ends up happening then is it causes erratic winds. And then it just kind of pushes the fire in areas that aren't tracked or under control yet … (in) different directions. So it increases fire behavior.

And then it can cause the fire to shoot through the canyon. It creates a very dangerous environment for firefighters. Dangerous enough to the point where some of our firefighters have to back off from the fire and wait for the fire behavior to calm down.

On how local wind patterns are affecting the fire

During the day, we're seeing southwest winds, pushing (the fire) to the north and northeast. That's where we're seeing most of our activity. But during the evening, around midnight, we're seeing a change in direction. We're starting to receive northeast winds which push the fire south. It pushed the fire back onto itself. It definitely calms down the fire behavior and it allows our firefighters some time to be a little bit more aggressive during the night hours.

On other weather occurrences, like dry lightning

We've had some lightning come through the area but it has stayed off to the east. Our firefighters are briefed on that every morning, and we have policies in place. If we do see lightning, we wait a little bit before re-engaging and going back out into the open. We hope it doesn't affect our firefighting efforts, but in cases when it does, our firefighters are prepared for it.

On how firefighters are navigating challenging terrain

Our crews are having to hike in, for the most part. The roads are very difficult to access. We're basically having to create dirt roads and punch in as fast as possible to allow our fire engines to get in there. But even then, our engines are having to stop and then (the firefighters) hike in. Sometimes it's taking them upwards of two to three hours just to get back out there.