California battles mega-fire

Ignited by lightning on July 2, the Sugar fire has expanded beyond 100,000 acres and is 68% contained.


National News

July 16, 2021 - 2:40 PM

Raymond Vasquez of Wildfire Defense Systems insurance surveys a property during the Salt fire south of Lakehead, California on July 2, 2021. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

LOS ANGELES – 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.”

These are the new norms now. We used to say ‘unprecedented and historic.’ We’re past that now.Jake Cagle, US Forest Service chief

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.

The sun sets in Los Angeles, California on July 12, 2021. – Wildfires were burning across more than 1 million acres of the western United States and Canada on July 12, 2021, as scorching temperatures held their grip on areas reeling from a brutal weekend heat wave. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

“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.