QUINCY, Calif. — The knock on the door came at 3 in the afternoon, as smoke was filling the sky. When Kristina Bowen heard the Plumas County sheriff’s deputy shouting, she knew she had to move fast.
“He said point-blank, ‘Pack your family’s bags, you got five minutes to get the hell out,’” said Bowen, 40, recalling the scramble to evacuate from her mobile home as the Dixie Fire, by far the largest blaze now raging in California, swept through surrounding forests.
In what has grown into a grim ritual in this part of Northern California, at least 16,500 people have had to recently flee their homes as yet another colossal wildfire balloons in size. The evacuations are raising tensions in a region still recovering from the Camp Fire, which left 85 people dead in 2018 and is the deadliest wildfire in California history.
President Joe Biden met virtually on Friday with governors from seven Western states, where devastating wildfires have grown more severe in recent years as climate change leads to a hotter and drier landscape. They discussed how the federal government could help states with prevention, preparedness and emergency response efforts.
More than 80 large fires were burning across the country on Friday, scorching about 1.7 million acres across 13 states. The two largest, the Dixie Fire, which has spread to nearly 241,000 acres, and the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, have both been described by fire officials as burning earlier and more intensely than is usual for this time of year because of drought conditions and record heat across the region.
In an eerie echo to the Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise and was started by equipment from the Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the utility giant told regulators this month that its equipment might have also started the Dixie Fire, in the same mountainous canyon where the 2018 blaze began.
The cause of the Dixie Fire remains under investigation. Lynsey Paulo, a PG&E spokeswoman, declined to respond to questions, instead referring to a report filed with regulators and a court filing in response to a court order that requested information on the blaze.
The incident report, which the company filed on July 18, described how an employee observed blown fuses in terrain off Highway 70 and “a fire on the ground near the base of the tree,” which he reported to his supervisor, who then called 911. In the July 28 court filing, the company said it was “continuing to investigate the role of its equipment” in the Dixie Fire, which on Friday was about 23% contained.
As firefighters struggled to contain the blaze, Quincy, on the edge of the evacuation zone, was transformed this week from a sleepy logging town of about 2,000 residents into a frenetic staging area.
At night, firefighting crews pitch tents and sleep in the town’s park. At daybreak, they pile into trucks and bulldozers and head into the surrounding mountains.
In one of the largest emergency mobilizations underway in the United States, at least 6,079 personnel have been called up to fight the Dixie Fire. They face an array of vexing conditions during 24-hour shifts, including hiking more than 15 miles through rough mountainous terrain to reach places where engines are simply unable to advance.
Black Hawk helicopters whirling overhead, carrying National Guard soldiers with water to drop over the blaze, give parts of the area the feel of a war zone. Getting to Quincy from the city of Chico involves passing through multiple roadblocks and deserted Gold Rush-era outposts like Twain and Belden, which were somehow saved by firefighters.
Charred trees still stand alongside much of Highway 70, as well as signs of close calls such as burned automobiles in front of intact but empty homes. Some forested hillsides remained smoldering on Friday. Multiple signs on the road expressed gratitude for the firefighters deployed against the Dixie Fire.
“I’m just glad to be alive,” said Marva Stewart, 75, a retired sales clerk who has spent the last week and a half in a makeshift shelter at the Springs of Hope church in Quincy. “But it’s frustrating, not having any idea when this will end. This isn’t how we’re supposed to live in this country.”
On one afternoon this week, some in the cramped church scrolled through social media feeds on their phones for updates on the Dixie Fire, which started on July 13 and has consumed an area larger than New York City.
Baltazar Garcia tried many times to call his sister, but swamped mobile phone networks in Quincy meant he could not get through. “This has been really hard on me,” Garcia, 76, a former quarry worker, said in Spanish. “I’m alone here, and it’s difficult to even find out what’s going on. At least they’re giving us meals.”
Other evacuees spent time in the parking lot for a semblance of privacy or sought refuge in their cars, turning up the air-conditioning as the smoke turned the sky an unusual shade of orange. Every so often they turned on the wipers to clean the ash settling on their windshields.
“I can’t take it anymore,” said Tracy Ketcham, 66, a retired homemaker, as she sat in her car outside the church. She said she was looking for some peace and quiet when she left Orange County in Southern California for the rural enclave of Greenville nine years ago.
“I study the Bible — now I can’t help but feel this is the end of days,” Ketcham said. The lack of privacy in the shelter, she said, coupled with reports of PG&E’s involvement and the absence of reliable information as to how long this disaster could last, had her feeling at wit’s end.
“Maybe it’s all a sign that I should just go home no matter the risk,” said Ketcham, who lives alone. “All the waiting, the kids crying, the damn heat right here in town. It’s got to be better than it is right here.”
As if pointing to the drought conditions nurturing wildfires in much of the West, temperatures have hovered around 100 degrees this week in the areas around the Dixie Fire. The blaze has grown so much that in Sacramento, the state capital that is a three-hour drive from Quincy, smoke from Dixie Fire raised concerns this week over worsening air quality. Authorities urged Sacramento residents with respiratory problems or heart disease to limit outdoor exposure.
“It feels like we’re swept up in something we cannot control,” said Scott Ludwig, who evacuated from the mobile home park with Bowen and their two children.
Ludwig, a former carnival worker who now gets by on disability payments, said he wanted answers from PG&E. “It’s insulting that we still have to pay an electricity bill to a company that doesn’t learn from its own mistakes.”
Putting out a cigarette as he stood near the shelter’s entrance, he gazed at the thousands of logs piled high nearby — a reminder of how much Quincy relies on the trees now going up in flames.
“We have no idea if we’ll have to evacuate again,” Ludwig said. “Look around us, there’s lots to burn. If the fire reaches this place, we’re nothing but roasted ducks.”