As the Dixie fire has burned through Northern California over the past month, the city of Susanville in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada has become a refuge.
Panicked residents of evacuated communities, including the devastated town of Greenville about an hour and a half away, have sought shelter at a local community college. Firefighters have set up a base camp at the city’s fairgrounds, where large animals are being kept to protect them from the fire.
But as winds picked up on Tuesday, there were growing concerns that Susanville itself was now under threat from the blaze, the second-largest on record in California, which grew by about 40,000 acres overnight. On Wednesday morning, officials said the situation was largely unchanged, with the fire still about eight miles away.
With a population of 15,000, Susanville — an old saw mill town that long ago became a prison town, with two state prisons and a federal facility in the region — is the largest community yet to fall in the fire’s path.
“It’s concerning,” said Mayor Mendy Schuster, who was packing up clothing, collecting family pictures and gathering important documents on Tuesday morning as she prepared for possible mandatory evacuation orders.
“Lots of prayers,” she added.
Other residents were following her lead, loading up important items and backing their cars into their driveways to allow for a quicker exit if evacuation orders arrived. At the same time, the community was being warned that gas stations were running low because fuel trucks could not get in.
Officials battling the Dixie fire, which has consumed more than 600,000 acres and at least 1,100 buildings, including 630 homes, were grappling with the possibility of evacuating not only residents of Susanville but the thousands of others who have sought safety there.
That includes many residents from nearby Janesville, with a population of about 1,400, where the fire on Monday forced evacuation orders. The blaze continued to spread south of Janesville on Wednesday.
“There has been some pretty intense fire activity,” said Dan McKeague, a public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service, which is in charge of much of the land where the Dixie fire has been burning. “Today we’ll likely see 200-foot flame lengths again.”
That means firefighters are not able to directly attack the fire from up close — they are generally only able to when the flames are under four feet high — and instead are focused on digging containment lines with bulldozers.
Fire officials said those lines, as well as a burn scar from a fire last year, should help protect Susanville. But a greater concern, with the unpredictability of the winds, is that embers could fly ahead and start spot fires.
“We’re literally at the whim of the wind right now,” said Lisa Bernard, a spokeswoman for the Lassen County Sheriff’s Office. “There is definitely a threat.”
The economic base of Susanville, the county seat, largely relies on the nearby prisons. The state recently announced plans to close one of the facilities there; inmate populations have declined because of criminal justice reforms including sentencing.
The plan has been met with pushback from Susanville, which has filed a lawsuit against the state in an effort to stop the closure and maintain the jobs and revenue there.
There were no plans to evacuate the state prisons on Tuesday, said Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. She said that the fire was about 13 miles away, and that officials had taken steps to limit the impact of unhealthy air by limiting the movement of people inside and distributing N95 masks.
Even as Susanville prepared on Tuesday for the fire, a court hearing for the city’s lawsuit to keep the prison open was supposed to go on as scheduled in the afternoon.
Dan Newton, Susanville’s interim city administrator, lives on the outskirts of town and was ordered to evacuate on Monday. He spent the night in his R.V., parked on a city street.
When reached by phone on Tuesday morning, he said he was heading into a planning meeting about the possible evacuation of the city, before attending the afternoon court hearing.
“The concern is high,” he said. “The winds are increasing in speed.”