Updated Aug 6, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Dixie Fire now 3rd largest wildfire in California history

Fire burning in two cars.

Vehicles and a home are engulfed in flames as the Dixie Fire rages on in Greenville, California on August 5, 2021. Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Wildfires are expanding in Northern California after destroying communities nestled in the Sierras on Wednesday night and Thursday, with the Dixie Fire now ranking as the third largest blaze in state history.

Why it matters: Yet again, California is giving the country a lesson in what climate change looks like after just 1.2°C (2.16°F) of global warming.

  • The West is in the midst of a brutally hot and severe drought, and fires are burning in areas where wildfire risk indices are off the charts — and peak fire season doesn't arrive for another month.

The big picture: With multiple record-shattering heat waves, the worst drought seen across the West this century, longstanding forest management practices that have loaded forests with more trees to burn, and human-caused climate change escalating things further, the West faces a calamitous end of summer into early fall.

  • Six of the seven largest fires in California's history have occurred since Aug. 2020, according to CalFire.
States with most wildfire acres burned this year
Data: Aon’s Catastrophe Insight division via NIFC; Note: Data for July 8-9 in Arizona was removed due to a data reporting discrepancy; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Details: The small Sierra town of Greenville, California, located about 160 miles northeast of Sacramento, was largely destroyed on Wednesday night into early Thursday as the Dixie Fire surged northward amid high winds, extremely dry air and hot temperatures.

  • On Thursday night, the same fire continued to threaten communities in Plumas County, as more mandatory evacuation orders were issued — including in parts of nearby Lassen County.
  • In Susanville, where some evacuees have taken shelter, the skies turned a "Blade Runner" orange as the fire advanced and residents were ordered to evacuate.
  • By Friday morning, the Dixie Fire had exploded in size to more than 432,800 acres, making it the largest single fire — and third largest overall, including fire complexes — in California history.

Threat level: A low pressure area in the upper atmosphere made the fire situation even more perilous Thursday into Thursday night, as towering thunderstorms formed over and downwind from the fires.

  • These storms caused winds to suddenly shift, forcing firefighters to repeatedly disengage from the blaze.

Context: Human-caused climate change is driving an increase in the likelihood and severity of heatwaves and droughts, and is behind a trend toward larger wildfires in much of the West, studies show.

  • Last year was California's worst wildfire season on record. So far, this season is ahead of last year's pace. The fires aren't limited to California, either, with 100 large blazes burning in 14 states.

What's next: In addition to the wildfire challenges California and other Western states face, drought impacts on California water and power resources are an increasingly big concern as well.

  • On Thursday, Lake Oroville fell to an all-time record low, shutting down the hydropower facility there and further straining an already stressed state grid.
  • In an effort to prevent future wildfire and other climate change-related disasters, the Biden administration on Thursday announced the largest-ever expenditure of resilience funds in a single year — $3.5 billion. This includes $484 million for California, according to the White House.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new details throughout. It has also been updated to state that some evacuees have been told to go to a shelter in Susanville, not evacuate from the town.

Go deeper