Abundant lightning strikes across California ignite new fires, while Dixie fire approaches 1 million acres

As lightning ignited several new fires across California, the Dixie fire raging north of Sacramento continued its relentless advancement this week, growing by nearly 22,000 acres overnight and moving ever closer to scorching 1 million acres, officials said.

Thunderstorms roiled large swaths of the state Thursday night, with accompanying lightning strikes starting several new fires in Northern California, while firefighters battled the Dixie fire — now a monstrous 950,591 acres — and a dozen other large blazes.

A fire that ignited Thursday night in the Kanaka Valley area of Rescue, in El Dorado County, was just over 6 acres and 5% contained by Friday morning — and constituted the largest of several new blazes in the area, according to Maurice Johnson, fire chief for El Dorado Hills and Rescue fire departments. More than 100 miles to the west, also late Thursday, crews in Mendocino County were battling what was dubbed the Rock Fire, burning south of Hopland.

Johnson estimated that hundreds of lightning strikes bore down on El Dorado, Sacramento and Amador counties during a storm cell that lasted several hours. Initially, he said, the lighting was “dry” — but it was followed by downpour early Friday morning.

“Hopefully that’ll help keep some of these fires down,” he said, noting that another blaze ignited about a quarter-mile from the one in the Kanaka Valley on Friday morning, but it was already contained.

Storms also brought much-needed rain to the burn areas of long-active fires, including over eastern portions of the Dixie fire, in Plumas County, and parts of the more than 200,000 acre-Caldor fire to the south, in El Dorado County, according to the National Weather Service. Rainfall was variable, but some areas saw up to a half-inch, said Scott McGuire, a meteorologist with the weather service’s Reno station.

However, precipitation was scant on the northwestern portion of the Dixie fire — now extending like a demonic finger beyond the Lassen Volcanic National Park and into the Hat Creek area of Shasta County — where the fire saw explosive growth overnight.

The blaze, 59% contained after burning for nearly two months, is the second-largest fire in California history and is less that 100,000 acres from rising to the first — a grim designation currently held by the 2020 August Complex fire.

As the fire pushed north toward the Hat Creek Rim on Wednesday, the remote community of Old Station and surrounding areas were evacuated. Mandatory evacuation orders were expanded Thursday as the fire continued its tear, and additional warnings went out.

There have been no reports of damaged homes or commercial buildings in those areas, said Capt. Mitch Matlow, a spokesperson for the west zone of the Dixie fire.

“We have boots on the ground in there, and we are protecting those structures,” he said.

A red flag warning advising of critical fire weather — covering areas including Western Lassen and Eastern Plumas counties —remains in effect until 11 p.m. on Friday, and fire officials were on high alert for plummeting humidity and fierce winds expected to arrive in the early afternoon.

Arriving from the southwest, the winds are forecast to blow from 15 to 25 mph, with gusts up 35 miles an hour. At higher elevations — including parts of the Lake Tahoe region — winds could gust up to 50 to 60 mph, said McGuire, of the weather station. Humidity was expected to drop to 15% to 20%.

Matlow said winds expected to arrived in the west zone of the Dixie fire carry a “potential for significant fire activity — very erratic behavior.” He anticipated winds in the area would top out at 20 in the valleys and up to 40 along ridge tops.

While areas of the Caldor fire enjoyed some rain, tamping down fire in some hot spots, officials said it would not make much of an impact on critically dry fuels and warned crews to stay vigilant.

“We have new lightning starts all around us, and we are already being pulled for resources from our incidents,” Anale Burlew, a unified incident commander for the Caldor fire, told firefighters during a briefing Friday morning.

She urged crews not to let “these few raindrops lull us into a sense of complacency.”

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