As Tropical Storm Grace strengthened on Wednesday during its approach of the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, a weakening Tropical Depression Fred was moving north through the Appalachians after spawning tornadoes in the Carolinas.
A third storm system, Tropical Storm Henri, swirled about 160 miles south of Bermuda.
Several tornadoes were reported on Tuesday, including in Edgefield County, S.C., and Iredell County, N.C., about 50 miles north of Charlotte, as the remnants of Fred swept across the Southeast. The storm briefly knocked out power in some areas and at least one man was killed on Monday in Florida when he lost control of his car while driving through floodwater, The News Herald reported.
The system, which made landfall in the Florida Panhandle on Monday afternoon, was expected to move northeast on Wednesday before slowing down as it moved through southern New England on Thursday, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Grace, which brought heavy rains to Haiti days after the country was hit by an earthquake, was expected to move west away from Jamaica by Wednesday morning before potentially affecting the Cayman Islands. Grace could peak as a Category 2 hurricane, the center said, before hitting the Yucatán Peninsula late Wednesday or early Thursday.
Out in the Atlantic Ocean, Henri’s winds strengthened on Tuesday to reach 65 miles per hour, prompting the center to issue a tropical storm watch for Bermuda. Henri was not expected to severely impact the island, however, and is forecast to travel far off the East Coast this week.
As the Dixie fire has burned through Northern California over the past month, the city of Susanville in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada has become a refuge.
Panicked residents of evacuated communities, including the devastated town of Greenville about an hour and a half away, have sought shelter at a local community college. Firefighters have set up a base camp at the city’s fairgrounds, where large animals are being kept to protect them from the fire.
Now, with winds picking up on Tuesday, there are growing concerns that Susanville itself is under threat from the blaze, the second-largest on record in California, which grew by about 40,000 acres overnight.
With a population of 15,000, Susanville — an old saw mill town that long ago became a prison town, with two state prisons and a federal facility in the region — is the largest community yet to fall in the fire’s path.
“It’s concerning,” said Mayor Mendy Schuster, who was packing up clothing, collecting family pictures and gathering important documents on Tuesday morning as she prepared for possible mandatory evacuation orders.
“Lots of prayers,” she added.
Other residents were following her lead, loading up important items and backing their cars into their driveways to allow for a quicker exit if evacuation orders arrived. At the same time, the community was being warned that gas stations were running low because fuel trucks could not get in.
Officials battling the Dixie fire, which has consumed more than 600,000 acres and at least 1,100 buildings, including 630 homes, were grappling with the possibility of evacuating not only residents of Susanville but the thousands of others who have sought safety there.
That includes many residents from nearby Janesville, with a population of about 1,400, where the fire on Monday forced evacuation orders.
“There has been some pretty intense fire activity,” said Dan McKeague, a public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service, which is in charge of much of the land where the Dixie fire has been burning. “Today we’ll likely see 200-foot flame lengths again.”
That means firefighters are not able to directly attack the fire from up close — they are generally only able to when the flames are under four feet high — and instead are focused on digging containment lines with bulldozers.
Fire officials said those lines, as well as a burn scar from a fire last year, should help protect Susanville. But a greater concern, with the unpredictability of the winds, is that embers could fly ahead and start spot fires.
“We’re literally at the whim of the wind right now,” said Lisa Bernard, a spokeswoman for the Lassen County Sheriff’s Office. “There is definitely a threat.”
The economic base of Susanville, the county seat, largely relies on the nearby prisons. The state recently announced plans to close one of the facilities there; inmate populations have declined because of criminal justice reforms including sentencing.
The plan has been met with pushback from Susanville, which has filed a lawsuit against the state in an effort to stop the closure and maintain the jobs and revenue there.
There were no plans to evacuate the state prisons on Tuesday, said Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. She said that the fire was about 13 miles away, and that officials had taken steps to limit the impact of unhealthy air by limiting the movement of people inside and distributing N95 masks.
Even as Susanville prepared on Tuesday for the fire, a court hearing for the city’s lawsuit to keep the prison open was supposed to go on as scheduled in the afternoon.
Dan Newton, Susanville’s interim city administrator, lives on the outskirts of town and was ordered to evacuate on Monday. He spent the night in his R.V., parked on a city street.
When reached by phone on Tuesday morning, he said he was heading into a planning meeting about the possible evacuation of the city, before attending the afternoon court hearing.
“The concern is high,” he said. “The winds are increasing in speed.”
As another day of hot, dry weather began in California on Wednesday, the two largest blazes burning in the state — Dixie and McFarland — were no closer to being contained than they had been 24 hours earlier.
That wasn’t the only bad news. The Caldor fire, which began on Saturday, had chewed through a total of about 54,000 acres by Tuesday evening, mostly in the preceding 24 hours, according to a New York Times wildfire tracker. The fire’s rapid spread forced the authorities to issue an mandatory evacuation order on Tuesday for Pollock Pines, a community of 7,000 people that is less 60 miles northeast of Sacramento, the state capital.
“It’s pretty darn close,” John Woodworth, the manager of a mobile home park in Pollock Pines, said of the fire in an interview with The Sacramento Bee newspaper, hours before the community was evacuated. “If the wind shifts, we’re in trouble.”
The Caldor fire has chewed through a far smaller area than the number of acres burned by the Dixie (more than 600,000) or McFarland fires (nearly 100,000). But as of Tuesday night it was not at all contained, while Dixie was 31 percent contained and McFarland was 51 percent contained. Cal Fire, the state’s the state’s firefighting agency, described the Caldor blaze as a “dynamic and rapidly developing incident.”
Officials in Northern California have said that high winds, low humidity, dry ground and scorching temperatures are combining this week to produce a drastically elevated fire risk, at least through Wednesday.
In one sign of that concern, Pacific Gas & Electric began shutting off power for about 51,000 customers in 18 of the state’s counties on Tuesday evening. It cited potential sustained wind gusts of up to 40 miles per hour, along with “extreme to exceptional drought conditions and extremely dry vegetation,” as contributing to the risk that power lines could start wildfires. The utility said that power should be restored on Wednesday after weather conditions improve.
The cause of the Dixie fire remains under investigation. In July, PG&E said blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked it.
The Dixie fire is one of dozens wildfires raging across the West and one of several large ones burning in and around small communities in Northern California. That includes the Monument fire, northwest of the McFarland and Dixie fires, which has burned more than 119,000 acres and caused fresh evacuations on Tuesday night. It was only 10 percent contained.
Some places that were once safe havens for evacuees are now girding for the arrival of flames and smoke. The city of Susanville, Calif., for instance, has lately been a refuge for people fleeing fires in nearby communities, including the devastated town of Greenville. Now there are growing concerns that the city itself could be in the path of the Dixie fire, the state’s second-largest on record.
As of Tuesday evening, the Caldor fire, which started over the weekend in the Eldorado National Forest, was moving northeast — away from the capital, The Sacramento Bee reported. But the authorities said that fresh winds were forecast to blow over the fire on Wednesday, some of them from the northeast.
Meteorologists warned that an expected shift in wind direction across Northern California on Tuesday night could exacerbate existing fires and push wildfire smoke into the San Francisco Bay Area by Wednesday morning. The hot, northerly gusts in the forecast — known as Diablo Winds — typically blow down toward the Pacific Ocean from higher elevations in the northeast. They can make wildfires worse or cause them to spread more rapidly.
The Caldor fire has already injured at least two people and destroyed an elementary school and a post office, among other structures. The government in El Dorado County noted on Facebook late Tuesday that one of three designated centers for evacuees was full, and that a hospital down the road was nearing capacity as it handled both coronavirus patients and people suffering from smoke inhalation.
In a separate post, the hospital, the Marshall Medical Center, urged fire evacuees who had tested positive for Covid-19 to avoid coming in for treatment if they were not short of breath and did not need emergency care.
Many areas of the United States, especially the West, are in the cross hairs of devastating wildfires again this year. Amid a summer of searing temperatures and dry winds, firefighters have for weeks tried to contain one escalating fire after another.
In news conferences and alerts to residents, firefighters might rattle off figures on how many thousands of acres have burned and speak of how “red flag conditions” are fueling “extreme fire behavior” that is hampering their efforts to increase the percentage of a “complex fire” that is “contained.”
Here is a guide to help you understand some of the terms officials use when discussing wildfires:
When fire officials report that a fire is, say, 30 percent contained, that means that 30 percent of the blaze’s boundary is hemmed in by barriers like rivers, streams, interstate highways or areas that are already scorched, leaving no more vegetation to ignite. Other times, these containment lines are 10- to 12-foot-wide trenches that crews have dug along the fire’s edge — sometimes with bulldozers — to stop the fire from spreading.
When officials say a fire is 100 percent contained, that does not mean it has been extinguished. It means only that firefighters have it fully surrounded by a perimeter; it could still burn for weeks or months. Once a fire is declared “controlled,” then it’s over.
Red flag warning
A red flag warning is the highest alert issued by the National Weather Service for conditions that may result in extreme fire behavior within 24 hours. Forecasters announce such a warning when warm temperatures (more than 75 degrees), very low humidity (less than 25 percent), and stronger winds (at least 15 m.p.h.) join forces to produce a heightened risk of fire danger.
If you live in an area under a red flag warning, you should make sure that you:
Clear dead weeds and vegetation around your home.
Empty your roof and gutters of dry leaves and other debris.
Remove flammable household items outside, like brooms and cushions on lawn furniture.
Don’t use lawn mowers on dry land.
Extreme fire behavior
Generally, extreme fire behavior includes some or all of the following:
A high rate of spread
Flames growing through the branches and leaves on trees as well as shrubbery, unaided by the blaze on the ground
The existence of fire whirls, which are vortexes of hot air and gases rising from a ground fire and carrying debris, flames and smoke into the air. They range from less than one foot to more than 500 feet in diameter. The largest resemble the intensity of a small tornado.
The presence of a convection column, which sends gases, smoke, fly ash, particulates and other debris produced by a fire straight into the air, spreading vertically, instead of horizontally
When there are two or more wildfires burning close together in the same area, they are often called a “complex” and attacked by firefighters under a unified command.
In the summer of 2020, a siege of dry lightning strikes sparked about 40 fires in three national forests in northwestern California. They all merged to become the August Complex fire. It burned more than one million acres in total, leading to a new term: “gigafire.”
When you hear of a 100,000-acre fire, that is a description of the total area that has been burned, not what is actively on fire at the time.
But, as Ernesto Alvarado, a professor of wildland fire sciences at the University of Washington, explained, “There’s no way you can map 100,000 acres with people on the ground.”
The authorities instead turn to airplanes, which use infrared cameras, and weather satellites that can snap an image of a fire zone every five minutes or so. Firefighters are able to create real-time maps from these data troves, which can then be supplemented by ground information to map any major fire.
Dixie. August Complex. Not Creative.
The top three finishers in the Belmont Stakes? No, those are the names of wildfires that have burned across the American West in recent years.
Unlike hurricanes, which are given human names from a list chosen in advance by the World Meteorological Organization, wildfires get their names in a much more intuitive way: Whatever makes it the easiest for firefighters to find a blaze and for nearby residents to consistently track the fire’s path.
Some of those burning right now include the South Yaak Fire in Montana (after the Yaak Valley), the Tamarack Fire in California (after a town) and the nation’s largest blaze this year, the Dixie Fire (after a nearby road).
Usually, fires get their names based on where they originate, fire officials have said. They’re named for winding rural roads, nearby landmarks or mountain peaks.
Although the Dixie Fire started some distance from where Dixie Road appears on maps, Rick Carhart, a Butte County spokesman for Cal Fire, California’s state fire agency, said it demonstrates how “remote and inaccessible” the blaze was for firefighters.
“Even though it didn’t start on the side of Dixie Road, it was the closest thing,” he said. Mr. Carhart noted that Dixie Road appears close to Camp Creek Road, after which 2018’s deadly Camp Fire was named.
Lynnette Round, a spokeswoman for Cal Fire, said that also means multiple blazes can end up with the same name.
There has been more than one River Fire, for instance. And in 2017, during a busy year, the blaze that came to be known as the Lilac Fire in San Diego County was actually the fifth one to be given that name.
Ms. Round said the first fire officials on the scene often name a blaze, and the moniker is almost never changed.
“If it changes, you’ll confuse people,” she said. Residents who have fled their homes might not know which fire they should be paying attention to if names shift. And fire officials might get confused about where to send resources.
Sometimes, fires burn together and effectively merge. If that happens, as it did with the Dixie Fire and the Fly Fire, officials will typically start using the larger fire’s name for both.
Last year, unusual lightning storms sparked many fires across California. “When they all run together, they become a complex fire,” Ms. Round said.
Such was the case with the August Complex, the largest fire on record in California, which burned more than a million acres last year. It ignited in August, heralding the early start of a record-breaking fire season.
Occasionally, there won’t be a significant landmark close to a fire’s ignition point. So officials will get creative. (Or not.)
That’s how, during the summer of 2015, officials named a blaze in southeast Idaho “Not Creative,” according to reports. A spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Lands told NPR the name was selected after a long day of firefighting.