Anatomy of a wildfire: How the Dixie Fire became the largest blaze of a devastating summer

Exceptional drought and searing heat exacerbated by climate change helped to fuel the monstrous inferno

Sources: NASA (wildfire data, elevation), European Space Agency (satellite image)

For two months, the Dixie Fire has menaced Northern California — stripping forests, forcing thousands from their homes and swallowing most of a Gold Rush-era community.

More than 1,300 structures have been leveled. Government agencies have doled out roughly $540 million to battle the blaze. And a federal judge is scrutinizing what role California’s largest utility, the already-embattled Pacific Gas and Electric, may have played in the fire’s origin.

The blaze is the second-largest in California’s history and the biggest to burn in the U.S. this summer, as climate change turbocharged severe storms, floods and fires. The Dixie Fire has now burned nearly 1 million acres, an area larger than New York City, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles combined.

The fire’s tear through remote, rugged terrain, exceptional drought bringing moisture levels in California’s forests to historic lows, searing heat, as well as a series of unexpected obstacles, combined to fuel a monstrous blaze unlike any firefighters said they had seen before.

This timeline, based on public records and interviews with people affected by the Dixie Fire, shows how a relatively small ring of flames burning 100 miles north of Sacramento morphed into a dangerous harbinger of the devastating wildfire seasons that could be more common as the Earth continues to heat up.

July 13: A PG&E employee reports seeing flames and a tree leaning on a power line near the Cresta Dam in Feather River Canyon, a stretch of land known for both its natural beauty and powerful Jarbo winds that in 2018 helped fuel the Camp Fire, California’s deadliest.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, colloquially known as Cal Fire, arrives at the blaze about 25 minutes after being notified and names it the Dixie Fire after one of the nearest roads. There are few, given the remote location. An unauthorized drone flies near the fire, temporarily forcing firefighting tankers and helicopters to pause their efforts.

PG&E spokesman James Noonan later tells The Washington Post that the company last evaluated the area’s trees on Jan. 14 and found none that needed trimming. PG&E also inspected the poles and wires in the area on May 13 and found nothing awry, he says.

A fire downhill

It’s 6:48 a.m. when a notice comes in to PG&E. Part of the power grid along Highway 70 near the border of Butte and Plumas counties has gone dark.

The company sends a roving operator, who confirms just before 9 a.m. that the service station near Cresta Dam has lost power.

PG&E then dispatches a maintenance worker — called a “troubleman” — who arrives around 12:30 p.m. and describes finding a hanging fuse. But he can’t reach the site because it is blocked by a Butte County road maintenance crew, PG&E later says in a court filing. The troubleman returns around 4:30 p.m.

As he rises in the bucket of his truck and looks downhill, he radios in a startling find: a ring of flames spanning about 600 square feet. Nearby, a Douglas fir leans against a power line.

“There’s a tree on a line that started a fire,” the troubleman says.

“Oh, my goodness,” the dispatcher responds.

The troubleman tries to thwart the blaze with his truck’s fire extinguisher and by digging a firebreak, a line cleared of fuels like dry shrubs. Miles away, his supervisor calls 911.

Cal Fire crews arrive around 5:30 p.m., more than 10 hours after PG&E was first alerted to the outage. PG&E’s potential involvement in the start of the fire will become the subject of an inquiry from a federal judge. The utility has been criminally charged and sometimes found liable in blazes since 2015 that erupted when trees hit their power lines. State regulations require public utilities to ensure their equipment is safe and to trim surrounding trees.

Firefighters begin siphoning water from the Feather River below and dropping it on the flames. They douse the blaze with 7,000 gallons of retardant, though steep, rugged terrain slows their progress.

The blaze has expanded to one acre by the time firefighting pilots return home for the evening. Ground crews continue to build a line around the flames. They will stay all night.

By the next morning, the Dixie Fire spans 1,200 acres and is completely uncontained.

July 19: The fire’s heat creates pyrocumulonimbus clouds, one sign of the Dixie blaze’s extreme and erratic behavior. These so-called “fire clouds” cause thunderstorms and about a dozen lightning strikes. Smoke columns rise more than 30,000 feet above the ground. Julia Rutherford, an incident meteorologist assigned to the Dixie Fire, says firefighters have been operating in “an extremely critical fire weather pattern.”

July 20: The Dixie Fire destroys its first two structures. Officials say firefighters will focus that night on defending other buildings in at-risk communities.

July 21: A federal judge in the Northern District of California orders PG&E to explain “the full extent to which its equipment had any role in the start” of the fire.

By now, the blaze has swelled to more than 85,000 acres and continues to burn in an area with steep terrain. Nearly 4,000 people in four counties are under evacuation orders due to wildfires active across California.

July 22: The Fly Fire breaks out east of the Dixie Fire. PG&E later tells state regulators the Fly Fire may have been caused by a tree falling on one of its power lines. The utility has estimated there are about 5.3 million trees tall enough to strike power lines in areas at high risk of fire.

July 25: The Dixie Fire, now more than 190,000 acres, and the Fly Fire, about 4,300 acres, burn together in a remote area hard for firefighters to access. The Plumas County Sheriff’s Office orders evacuations for the historic community of Greenville, which was home to the Maidu tribe of Native Americans for thousands of years before European settlers arrived in the mid-19th century.

Erratic weather challenges firefighters

As smoke columns rise from the inferno, the plumes interact with moisture in the air to form a distinctive, off-white cloud. A thunderstorm erupts, sparking lightning and erratic winds.

Flames push across the landscape and a haze blankets the area, making it hard to see whether the lightning has ignited new spot fires.

“We will go in there and do everything we can, as long as Mother Nature allows us to put the fire out,” Tony Brownell, an operations section chief for the Dixie Fire, says at a briefing. “But when she’s running like she’s running today, it’s very difficult, and it’s unsafe for our firefighters.”

The air remains hot, dry and breezy — perfect conditions for fire growth. For most of the summer, the probability that a spot fire will erupt if given the opportunity is 100 percent, Ryan Bauer, fire management specialist at Plumas National Forest, later tells The Post. A figure in the 80s is considered high.

The strong winds and pyrocumulonimbus clouds act as dueling enemies of firefighters. When winds are strong, fire movement is unpredictable. When the breeze is light, pyro-clouds form more easily.

“It’s a constant battle between either the wind determining what the fire does or the fire determining what the fire does,” Bauer says.

Aug. 1: The Plumas County Sheriff’s Office downgrades its evacuation order for Greenville to a warning. Many residents return.

Aug. 2: Higher temperatures, drier conditions and stronger winds cause “explosive fire growth” as the blaze moves northeast. Greenville returns to a mandatory evacuation order, just 29 hours after the first order was lifted. “We’re looking not real good today,” says Dennis Burns, a fire behavior analyst.

Aug. 3: Firefighting crews and equipment shift to Greenville from other areas as the Dixie Fire bears down on the tightknit mountain community. Residents grab dogs, sketchbooks, a treasured quilt, the ashes of their deceased, and flee. Roughly 25 miles away, the community of Chester is ordered evacuated.

[What they saved from the flames]

Aug. 4: The Plumas County Sheriff’s Office issues a dire warning to Greenville residents: “You are in imminent danger and you MUST leave now!!” The Dixie Fire sweeps through that evening, destroying about three-quarters of the community.

A historic Gold-Rush era town is left in ruins

Little remains after the Dixie Fire blazes through Greenville.

There’s the high school. There’s a Dollar General store. There are a professional services building and a few homes on the community’s outskirts.

Nearly everything else has been incinerated.

“The infrastructure of Greenville has been pretty destroyed,” Plumas County Undersheriff Chad Hermann tells The Post. “The town’s devastated.”

Mangled metal litters the soot-covered ground. Bricks that once formed a building scatter across a road. Spiderwebs of cracks run through road signs that still remain standing.

“Only by losing everything did I really learn what’s important,” says Ken Donnell, who escaped with only his wallet, his cellphone and the clothes on his back.

Greenville’s roughly 1,000 residents remain wildfire refugees weeks later, forbidden from visiting the remnants of their homes as the town remains dangerous to access.

“We can’t stick around and wait forever,” says April Hilpert, whose house was destroyed after her family evacuated. “We have to start kind of trying to rebuild our lives again.”

Aug. 6: The Dixie Fire grows to more than 432,000 acres, surpassing the Creek Fire of 2020. Though some characterize the blaze as the largest single fire in California’s history, officials note it is a combination of two blazes. Single fires stem from one blaze, while those that are complex are a combination of several.

Chester is saved

Residents flee Chester as the fire curls around the scenic community, a 2,100-person town that draws visitors to nearby Lake Almanor and Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Like with Greenville, strong winds sweep the Dixie Fire toward Chester, Bauer says. But firefighters there benefit from Chester’s less-steep terrain and the periodic thinning of its brush and small trees.

As officials reroute extra firefighters and equipment to the area, powerful winds uproot a 24-inch pine tree and throw it on top of a building. Crews spray homes and storefronts with fire retardant as they herd the flames around homes, allowing the forest to burn.

The blaze reaches a diversion dam on the town’s southwest side, then the airport and then the outskirts of town. Then it burns around the town itself.

“One hundred and ten thousand acres of timberland burned during one burning cycle on that fire,” says Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter. “It did not burn Chester.”

Aug. 8: The Dixie Fire is now 463,000 acres and the second-largest wildfire in California’s history, 26 days after it started. It has surpassed the Mendocino Complex Fire of 2018. Six of the state’s seven largest fires of all time have erupted in the past year. A former college professor is accused of setting more than half a dozen fires near the massive wildfire, threatening first responders and others.

A former college professor is charged with committing arson near the Dixie Fire

The black SUV’s front tires are stuck in a ditch while its underside balances on a large boulder about 150 yards from the newly erupted Cascade Fire.

A U.S. Forest Service investigator approaches and finds a former college professor, Gary Maynard, underneath trying to free the Kia Soul. Maynard holds three master’s degrees and a PhD in sociology, focusing on topics like “deviance and crime,” according to a biography shared by Sonoma State University.

Last fall, he had been appointed a part-time lecturer in the school’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice Studies. But his position had not been renewed for the spring semester, the university later says. More recently he had been traveling across Northern California and living out of his car, a complaint states.

Maynard denies knowing about any fires, the investigator recounts in a court filing. A witness reports seeing him walk toward the area where the Cascade Fire would ignite and return about 10 minutes later.

On Aug. 3, the investigator installs a tracker on Maynard’s car. Law enforcement officers observe his SUV near three wildfires around the time they start. They arrest Maynard on Aug. 7 on allegations that he crossed into a fire emergency zone.

Sheriff’s officers later charge him with arson for allegedly starting the Ranch Fire in Lassen National Forest the same day. Investigators believe he was involved in starting six other blazes. Maynard allegedly kicks his jail cell’s door, denying he started any fires and threatening to kill a sheriff’s deputy, court filings allege.

In a memo arguing for pretrial detention, federal prosecutors say Maynard traveled long distances to set blazes near first responders fighting the Dixie Fire. His fires “were placed in the perfect position” to potentially trap firefighters, prosecutors argue.

“Where Maynard went, fires started,” they write. “Not just once, but over and over again.”

Maynard is ordered detained without bail. His public defender, Heather Williams, tells The Post that because her client has not been indicted, “as with every other accused at this point in their cases, his plea is ‘not guilty.'"

Aug. 9: More pyrocumulonimbus clouds form over the Dixie Fire.

Aug. 17: Lassen Volcanic National Park’s headquarters is evacuated as the Dixie Fire continues to burn through the site, which has been closed since Aug. 5. PG&E temporarily cuts power to more than 51,000 customers to reduce wildfire risks.

Aug. 18: Porter, chief of Cal Fire, says the Dixie Fire is the first wildfire to jump from the west side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the east side. He says the inferno is “exceedingly resistant to control.”

Six firefighter engines are diverted to help battle the Caldor Fire, which has exploded in size, destroying homes and charring cars in Grizzly Flats, a small town outside Sacramento.

Scott Stephens, a professor of wildland fire science at the University of California at Berkeley, later tells The Post the massive response needed to try to contain the Dixie Fire has kept firefighters from devoting more resources to other fires, like Caldor — now more than 210,000 acres — while they are still small.

Aug. 20: In an incident report, fire officials say they are “experiencing conditions never seen before, such as increased spread rates, spotting and active nighttime burning.”

Aug. 25: Responding to questions from a federal judge, PG&E denies the suggestion that one of its contractors may have flown the drone that interfered with the firefight on July 13. The company adds that it cannot account for what its contractors may have done on their own time.

Meanwhile, smoke from the Dixie Fire and other blazes prompts air-quality alerts in cities hundreds of miles away. Officials in Washoe County, Nev., say the county experienced its top three worst air pollution days on record in the past week. Throughout the summer, multiple wildfires generate hazy conditions as far away as New York City.

A valley owned by the Maidu is damaged only two years after the tribe regained it

In the spring, the waterways reflect every color in the valley.

Purple Brodiaea flowers decorate the landscape, nestled between granite peaks. Wide-open sky stretches overhead. Visitors sip from naturally occurring soda springs.

It is, Trina Cunningham says, “an awe-inspiring place.”

Or it was, before the Dixie Fire swept through the 2,325-acre valley known as Tásmam Koyóm in late July — burning down a historic stagecoach stop, destroying fencing used for cattle-grazing and ravaging culturally significant planting areas.

But Cunningham, executive director of the Maidu Summit Consortium, is choosing to look on the bright side. Meadow ecosystems need fire for regeneration. She just wishes this particular blaze didn’t also bring so much destruction.

This land is special to the consortium, which formed to protect it and other sites sacred to the Maidu tribe of Native Americans. In 2019, the group regained control of the valley from PG&E as part of the company’s bankruptcy proceedings.

The Maidu people lived in Tásmam Koyóm, also known as Humbug Valley, for thousands of years before European settlers arrived. It has served as an open space in recent years, with an area for camping. The consortium hopes to turn it into a park with tours to demonstrate indigenous ecology.

For now, the Dixie Fire keeps staff from examining the whole valley. They have resigned themselves to beginning restoration work in areas that can be accessed while the inferno still burns.

“We kept waiting for the fire to be out,” Cunningham says. “But the fire’s not going out.”

Aug. 30: Windy conditions contribute to erratic fire behavior. A red-flag warning is in place, indicating that heat, very low humidity and strong winds could combine to increase the risk of fire danger. The U.S. Forest Service announces that all of California’s national forests will close through Sept. 17 due to “record level fuel and fire conditions.”

Aug. 31: The Dixie Fire explodes by more than 42,000 acres in a day.

Sept. 2: A firefighter assigned to the Dixie Fire dies following “an illness,” Cal Fire says. Officials decline to release any further details. It is the first death of a responder involved in battling the blaze. Three others have been injured.

Sept. 3: The Plumas County Sheriff’s Office lifts its evacuation order for Greenville. Residents can finally return to visit their properties. The sheriff’s office warns that damaged terrain and flash flooding in the area could still be dangerous.

Sept. 10: The fire expands rapidly overnight, with wind gusts pushing the flames closer to Hat Creek and Old Station, two rural communities known for fishing and campgrounds. Officials remind residents under evacuation orders expanded in recent days to flee.

Sept. 13: The PG&E troubleman who first reported the Dixie Fire testifies in court. Judge William Alsup asks the troubleman, whose name was not read aloud, why he did not turn off a switch near Cresta Dam that would have de-energized power lines and could have prevented the wildfire, according to Sacramento-area TV station ABC10. The troubleman says he would have needed authorization, but adds that he did not request that permission. “It’s not PG&E’s policy to de-energize customers without a cause,” he testifies.

The same day, President Biden visits the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates the country’s firefighting resources, in Boise, Idaho, and gets an aerial tour of California’s charred land.

The Dixie Fire has burned through more than 960,000 acres and is 75 percent contained. Firefighters believe they are in the final stages of subduing the flames.

The fall season — when the biggest and most destructive wildfires tend to strike — has just begun.

About this story

Editing by Christine Armario, Matt Callahan, Amanda Erickson and Ann Gerhart. Graphics editing by Tim Meko. Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof. Video editing by John Farrell and Jayne Orenstein. Copy editing by Jamie Zega. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.

Marisa Iati is a reporter for the General Assignment News Desk at The Washington Post. She previously worked at the Star-Ledger and NJ.com in New Jersey, where she covered municipal mayhem, community issues, education and crime.
Dylan Moriarty is a graphics reporter and cartographer at The Washington Post.