As the Dixie fire has swept through Northern California for the past month, the town of Susanville in the Sierra Nevada foothills has become a refuge.
Panicked residents of evacuated communities, including the devastated city of Greenville about an hour and a half away, have sought shelter at a local community school. Firefighters have set up a base camp at the city’s fairgrounds, where large animals are kept to protect them from the fire.
With winds picking up Tuesday, there are growing concerns that Susanville itself may be threatened by the fire, the second largest on record in California, which grew by about 40,000 acres overnight.
With a population of 15,000, Susanville — an old sawmill town that long ago became a prison town, with two state prisons and a federal facility in the region — is the largest community to have fallen in the fire’s path to date.
“It’s worrying,” said Mayor Mendy Schuster, who Tuesday morning packed clothes, collected family photos and gathered important documents as she prepared for possible mandatory evacuation orders.
“Many prayers,” she added.
Other residents followed suit, loading important items and parking their cars in their driveways to get out more quickly when evacuation orders came. At the same time, the community was warned that gas stations were running low because tankers couldn’t get in.
Officials fighting the Dixie fire, which destroyed more than 600,000 acres and at least 1,100 buildings, including 630 homes, struggled to evacuate not only the residents of Susanville but the thousands of others who sought safety there.
That includes many residents from nearby Janesville, with a population of about 1,400, where the fire forced evacuation orders on Monday.
“There’s been some pretty intense fires,” said Dan McKeague, a public information officer for the US Forest Service, which is in charge of much of the land where the Dixie fire burned. “Today we will probably see flame lengths of 60 meters again.”
That means firefighters can’t attack the fire directly at close range — they’re generally only capable when the flames are less than four feet high — and instead focus 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 bigger concern, with the unpredictability of the wind, is that embers can fly forward and cause 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, is largely dependent on the nearby prisons. The state recently announced plans to close one of the facilities there; prisoner populations have declined as a result of criminal law reforms, including sentencing.
The plan has met resistance from Susanville, who has filed a lawsuit against the state in an effort to stop the shutdown and preserve jobs and revenue there.
There were no plans to evacuate the state prisons Tuesday, said Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. She said the fire was about 13 miles away and officials had taken steps to limit the impact of unhealthy air by restricting the movement of people inside and handing out N95 masks.
Even as Susanville prepared for the blaze Tuesday, a court hearing for the city’s lawsuit to keep the jail open was set to continue as scheduled in the afternoon.
Susanville interim city manager Dan Newton lives on the outskirts of town and was ordered to evacuate Monday. He spent the night in his motor home, parked on a city street.
When reached by phone on Tuesday morning, he said he was on his way to a planning meeting about the possible evacuation of the city before attending the afternoon session.
“The concern is great,” he said. “The wind is increasing in speed.”