Every two days, US wildfires are consuming an area the size of Washington, DC. And there’s no let up in sight

Dixie Fire Greenville 2
Video shows town leveled by wildfire in California
00:54 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The dozens of wildfires that have scorched the western US this summer have consumed on average 30 square miles – almost half the size of Washington, DC – on a daily basis, the US Drought Monitor said Thursday.

And the unrelenting heat will make matters even worse as dangerous, dry thunderstorms are expected this weekend in Northern California, home to the nation’s largest wildfire.

“Little or no precipitation fell on most of the (Western) region, and drought intensity remained unchanged from last week in most areas,” the monitor said, noting that the dryness, exacerbated by periods of intense heat, “has led to the rapid development and expansion of wildfires.”

Since early June, the fires have burned an area “approaching half the size of Washington, DC,” according to the monitor, which is produced through a partnership between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the US Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Overall, there are currently 104 active fires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The largest fire is in California, while Montana has the most, with 25 wildfires, the agency said.

Of growing concern is the Richard Spring Fire on Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana. The fire has swelled to more than 166,000 acres, up from 149,453 a day prior, according to InciWeb, the US clearinghouse for fire information. The fire’s containment dropped to 0% Thursday, down from 15% the previous day. The fire is expected to merge with the smaller nearby Lame Deer Fire, which has burned 3,884 acres.

Evacuation orders were issued for the town of Lame Deer as officials warned the fire was bearing down on the small community of more than 2,000 people. Fire crews used dozers and point-protection measures to protect the community, according to InciWeb. Multiple evacuations sites have been set up to house those who are displaced.

“At this stage of the fire, we are turning our efforts towards supplying firefighters and displaced residents with supplies. The community has had a great response to the needs of the residents. I have released one of the Montana Sheriff’s Mutual Aid Teams and the remaining two are going out to assist us with supply deliveries,” Rosebud County Sheriff Allen Fulton said Thursday in a Facebook post.

Rowdy Alexander watches from atop his horse as a hillside burns on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation near Lame Deer, Montana, on August 11, 2021

The Richard Spring and Lame Deer fires exhibited intense activity, with winds gusting 25-35 mph and relative humidity of 15-25%, NIFC said Thursday.

Fire personnel had already been bracing for increased activity in the West due to the insufferable heat and severe drought conditions driven by climate change. The Pacific Northwest was again under heat warnings as temperatures rise up to 25 degrees above normal.

The Dixie Fire –California’s second-largest in history– has charred more than half a million acres over the past month. The fire’s containment Thursday stood at 31%, up by one percentage point from a day prior, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.

The Dixie Fire has destroyed 1,045 structures, including more than 550 homes and 140 commercial buildings. Another 69 structures have been damaged, and more than 15,000 structures remain at risk.

And more fires could be sparked in the Northern California area because there is a chance for isolated dry thunderstorms near the Dixie Fire, CNN meteorologist Robert Shackelford said.

“There also is a high pressure that is over this area, which will not break down until next week. So this will be an issue for the next few days,” he said.

Cal Fire said a Red Flag Warning would be in effect in Northern California starting Friday afternoon until late in the evening “due to potential dry lightning.”

Such a warning is issued when there is “severe fire weather such as strong sustained winds, gusts and low humidity, combined with a high fire danger rating,” according to the NIFC.

“Fire activity remained moderate today on the Dixie Fire. Warm and dry conditions will continue through the end of the week. Sporadic isolated thunderstorms occurred within the fire area today but did not result in any new fire ignitions,” Cal Fire said.

After walking down a gravel road to do recon on a fire cresting into the trees, a wildland firefighter grimaces as he walks back to his crew on August 12, 2021, at the Bedrock Fire north of Lenore, Idaho.

California wildfires have so far ripped through more than 917,000 acres, which is a dramatic increase of 233% over the same period last year, becoming the state’s worst wildfire year on record, according to Cal Fire.

CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller contributed to this report.