Sugar fire becomes California’s first mega-fire of the year as Dixie fire triples in size

As the Dixie fire in Butte County balloons in size, the Sugar fire burning in Plumas National Forest north of Sacramento has become the first 100,000-acre fire in California this year.

The lightning-sparked Sugar fire ignited July 2 and quickly swelled in size as crews battled extreme temperatures and strong gusts of wind.

In the days that followed, spot fires and flare-ups made it difficult for firefighters to gain a footing on the blaze, officials said. At one point, it grew with such velocity that its massive cloud of smoke, ash and heat generated its own lightning.

As of Friday morning, the Sugar fire had reached 104,567 acres and was 68% contained.

During a morning briefing, U.S. Forest Service operations section chief Jake Cagle said the 100,000-acre milestone is no longer uncommon in California, which experienced a record wildfire season in 2020 and is already outpacing those numbers this year.

“These are the new norms now,” Cagle said. “We used to say ‘unprecedented and historic.’ We’re past that now.”

While much of the Sugar fire’s footprint has been contained, a portion of its western perimeter near Ross Canyon continues to present challenges for the team, according to Cagle.

“We have tried multiple operational periods since we’ve been here to go direct on this piece,” he said, “and our crews keep getting ran out of there.”

Cagle said crews were re-strategizing Friday, and planned to move farther away from the fire’s edge to construct containment lines and set backfires. The move will give them more time for prep work, but could represent an addition of about 6,400 acres to the blaze.

They will conduct the operation as early as Friday night, or as soon as appropriate wind conditions allow, he said.

The Sugar fire was one of two fires sparked by lightning in the forest around the same time and together dubbed the Beckwourth Complex fires. The second fire, the Dotta fire, started June 30 and was 594 acres and 99% contained Friday.

Combined, they have burned through 105,161 acres.

Fire incident spokeswoman Phyllis Ashmead said California’s recent heat waves and ongoing drought are what enabled the Sugar fire to become the first to reach mega-fire status this year.

“Primarily it’s the dry fuels that we have, and the low humidities, that are really creating these fires,” she said, noting that this type of fire behavior isn’t typically seen until August or September.

“It’s extremely dynamic. … And it’s not just here, it’s in many areas. It’s the same conditions throughout California,” she said.

Also of concern is the burgeoning Dixie fire, which more than tripled in size overnight to 7,947 acres.

That fire ignited Wednesday morning and was 7% contained Friday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The fire is burning in the scar of the 2018 Camp fire, but moving north, away from populated areas, said incident spokeswoman Kimberly McGuire. No homes or structures are currently threatened.

McGuire said high winds Thursday propelled the fire’s substantial growth, and that more high winds are in store Friday.

“We have a lot of dry fuel, and that wind is really detrimental to the situation right now,” she said.

Residents in the area said the wildfire’s proximity to the Camp fire has stoked reminders of that devastating blaze, which killed more than 85 people and reduced the town of Paradise to ashes.

McGuire said Cal Fire officials are working hard to “reassure them that we are doing our best, and that as of right now, we are really confident and positive that we are able to hold the fire away from the community of Paradise.”

Fire officials are even using some of the containment lines from the 2018 fire in the fight against the Dixie fire, she said, which is helping create a barrier of protection for residents.

Mandatory evacuations for the High Lake area and from the Butte/Plumas County line from Rock Creek to Tobin remained in place Friday, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office said.

Evacuation warnings are also in effect from east of Tobin to Caribou.

Although crews are making progress on the Sugar and Dixie fires, conditions in California remain so ripe for ignition that the National Interagency Fire Center’s multi-agency coordinating group this week elevated the national preparedness level to 5 — the highest level of wildland fire activity.

The decision was driven by significant fire activity across many areas, the NIFC said in a statement.

“Given the continuing hot and dry weather, the increase in initial attack and large fires in the western U.S., the decision to move to PL 5 depicts the complexity that fire managers are encountering to ensure that adequate firefighting resources are available for protection of life, property and our nation’s natural resources,” the group said.

It is the earliest such designation in 10 years. In 2002, preparedness level 5 was set on June 21, and in 2008, it was set July 1, according to the agency.

Cagle said the Sugar fire’s 100,000-acre milestone will likely be repeated this year, and noted that the North Complex fire in 2020 made a 218,000-acre run in about six hours.

Last year also saw California’s first ever million-acre fire, the August Complex, which spread through several counties and sent massive amounts of smoke and ash into the sky.

“This is what we’re going to continue to see until there’s some kind of significant change in our weather patterns, or getting out of the drought,” Cagle said of the Sugar fire’s growth. “That’s what we’re seeing. That’s what every fire is seeing.”

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