For 103 days in 2021, the Dixie Fire burned wildly through Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Shasta, and Tehama Counties, torching over 1,505 square miles (963,309 acres) of the Sierra Nevada Forest. It ranks as the second-largest wildfire in California's history, and the largest one to come from a single spark rather than combining with other fires, as the larger August Complex Fire in 2020 had. And we now know the effort to suppress the Dixie Fire was the most expensive in U.S. history.
As the Chronicle reports, in recent years, California's firefighting bill has reached heights never before seen. The federal government paid $1 billion in total to stop California wildfires in 2021, nearly three times the amount it doled out the year before. That bill is thanks to the use of contract firefighters.
The U.S. Forest Service has faced concerning staffing shortages recently. As a result, it's had to rely on local and private firefighting agencies, which typically come with a larger bill: entry-level firefighters with the Forest Service make about $30,000 a year, compared with $50,000 a year for the entry-level firefighters in City and County fire departments. Inflation drove up the cost of fuel food, adding to the price tag, per the Chronicle.
The Dixie Fire's total pricetag came to $637.4 million, almost double the entire amount spent by the Forest Service for fire suppression in its Pacific Southwest Region the previous year. The second-most expensive fire was also last year, the Beckwourth Complex fires in July, which burned almost 106,000 acres in the Plumas National Forest, and came in at $542.6 million.
In total, the U.S. Forest Service spent $3.7 billion fighting fires nationwide in 2021. Over 25% of that went to stop fires in California alone.
Cal Fire says it expects this fiscal year's costs to run around $1.18 billion, compared with $1.76 billion from the year before.
As SFist reported in January, investigators determined yet again that PG&E lines were responsible for starting the fire, which was sparked on July 13th, 2021. A tree came in contact with a transmission line, as has been the story for other devastating wildfires. The utility company pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter after starting the Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise in November 2018; and the Shasta County District Attorney filed 31 total charges against the company after the Zogg Fire in 2020, which killed four people, including an eight-year-old girl.
The Camp Fire and 2017's Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County still rank as the most destructive fires to date in state history.
PG&E filed for bankruptcy and raised rates to cover its legal fees and payouts relating to past fires in 2017 and 2018.
"We have taken a stand that catastrophic wildfires shall stop," PG&E CEO Patti Poppe said at the time. "We will partner with the best and the brightest to bring that stand to life. We will demand excellence of ourselves."
The company is in the process of putting more lines underground in fire-prone regions, but it has only committed to doing this for a small fraction of its lines, over the course of the next decade.
Photos: U.S. Army 1Sgt. Harley Ramirez & @146AirliftWing