Fighting the Dixie Fire


Wildfires have always been a normal part of life in the American West. During a typical year in the late 20th century, fires burned about 500,000 acres a year in California — an area equal to roughly half the size of Rhode Island.

Over the past decade or so, the number of fires has held fairly steady. But their intensity has changed. The ground is drier, because climate change has reduced the amount of snow that comes down from California’s mountains and because droughts are more common. “Everything is burning more intensely,” Robert Foxworthy, a former firefighter who is now a spokesman for the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told us.

The situation is not so different from what climate change seems to have done to hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean: They are not necessarily more frequent, but they are more intense.

For California and the other parts of the West, wildfires have become ferociously destructive. The average number of acres burned in the state exceeded one million from 2015 to 2019, meaning that fires annually burned an area greater than the size of Rhode Island. Last year, more than four million acres (which is larger than Connecticut) burned in California, and this year the number is around 2.5 million so far.

Together, the past two years of California wildfires have burned an area larger than the total acreage of New Jersey or Vermont. “The fire situation in California is unrecognizably worse than it was a decade ago,” Michael Wara, a Stanford University scientist, has told The Times.

The largest fire this year has been the Dixie fire, which began on July 13, about 100 miles northwest of Lake Tahoe. The fire may have been caused by a tree that fell on a power line, sparking a brush fire that quickly spread. It eventually grew to encompass more than 960,000 acres.

This morning, The Times published an article — based largely on videos — that tells the story of the fight to defeat Dixie.

The effort has involved more than 6,500 people, using hundreds of aircraft, trucks and bulldozers. The command center alone, which took over a county fairgrounds, came to resemble a makeshift town.

As our colleagues write: “Each morning at 7 a.m., hundreds of firefighters, bulldozer operators and pilots gathered under a poplar grove for a daily briefing. Some crew members wore sweatshirts bearing the names of past big fires like badges of honor: Creek fire, Camp fire, Lightning Complex. Dixie already had one, too.”

Dixie is now largely under control. But many of the firefighters and other workers who defeated it feel like they are losing the larger war.

“Fifteen years ago, a 100,000-acre fire would be the largest fire of your career. Now, we have one-million-acre fires,” said Kristen Allison, who has been a firefighter for the past 25 years. “Meanwhile, there are five other 100,000-acre fires burning right now in Northern California.”

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Matt Amodio doesn’t come off as an aggressive person. He is a self-effacing graduate student from Ohio who hopes to become a computer science professor. But Amodio is also a strategically ruthless “Jeopardy!” player on the second-longest winning streak in the show’s history.

His biggest advantage is his broad knowledge, gleaned partly from reading Wikipedia pages late into the night. But he also benefits from a Moneyball approach to the game, looking for almost any small advantage.

He starts almost every response with “What’s … ,” rather than wasting mental energy on choosing among “What,” “Who” or “Where.” He pauses after saying “What’s …” even when he seems to know the answer, to double check himself. When the correct response is a person, he gives only the last name, to avoid a needless mistake on the first name.

He also uses a betting strategy — aggressive early, often cautious later — that maximizes his chances of winning the game, rather than maximizing his winning dollar total.

As of Friday’s show, Amodio, who is a graduate student at Yale, had won 38 games, still a long way from Ken Jennings’s record of 74. Amodio has somehow managed to become popular even among the players he beats, The Ringer’s Claire McNear reported: When his total winnings exceeded $1 million, he received a standing ovation from the defeated players in the room.

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