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Wildfire thunderstorms wreak havoc in California, fanning flames and destroying towns

Wildfires are expanding in Northern California after destroying communities nestled in the Sierras on Wednesday night and Thursday, with the Dixie Fire now ranking as the sixth largest blaze in state history. It's likely to move up the list Friday morning.

Why it matters: Yet again, California is giving the country a lesson in what climate change looks like after just 1.2°C (2.16°F) of global warming.

  • The West is in the midst of a brutally hot and severe drought, and fires are burning in areas where wildfire risk indices are off the charts -- and peak fire season doesn't arrive for another month.

The big picture: With multiple record-shattering heat waves, the worst drought seen across the West this century, longstanding forest management practices that have loaded forests with more trees to burn, and human-caused climate change escalating things further, the West faces a calamitous end of summer into early fall.

Data: Aon’s Catastrophe Insight division via NIFC; Note: Data for July 8-9 in Arizona was removed due to a data reporting discrepancy; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Details: The small Sierra town of Greenville, California, located about 160 miles northeast of Sacramento, was largely destroyed on Wednesday night into early Thursday as the Dixie Fire surged northward amid high winds, extremely dry air and hot temperatures.

  • On Thursday night, the same fire continued to threaten communities in Plumas County, as more mandatory evacuation orders were issued — including for the town of Susanville in nearby Lassen County.
  • In Susanville, the skies turned a "Blade Runner" orange as the fire advanced and residents were ordered to evacuate.

This is the current view from Susanville, California, where the smoke plume of the #DixieFire is so thick, only the red light being produced by the sun can pierce through the smoke particles being produced by the fire. A scene that looks like something you'd see on Mars.

— US StormWatch (@US_Stormwatch) August 5, 2021

Threat level: A low pressure area in the upper atmosphere made the fire situation even more perilous Thursday into Thursday night, as towering thunderstorms formed over and downwind from the fires.

  • These storms caused winds to suddenly shift, forcing firefighters to repeatedly disengage from the blaze.

Context: Human-caused climate change is driving an increase in the likelihood and severity of heatwaves and droughts, and is behind a trend toward larger wildfires in much of the West, studies show.

  • Last year was California's worst wildfire season on record. So far, this season is ahead of last year's pace. The fires aren't limited to California, either, with 100 large blazes burning in 14 states.

What's next: In addition to the wildfire challenges California and other Western states face, drought impacts on California water and power resources are an increasingly big concern as well.

  • On Thursday, Lake Oroville fell to an all-time record low, shutting down the hydropower facility there and further straining an already stressed state grid.
  • In an effort to prevent future wildfire and other climate change-related disasters, the Biden administration on Thursday announced the largest-ever expenditure of resilience funds in a single year — $3.5 billion. This includes $484 million for California, according to the White House.

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