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Camp Fire encroaches on repaired Oroville Dam

$1.1 billion fix of once-crumbling structure wrapped last month

Thousands Evacuated Near Oroville Dam As Spillway Threatens To Fail
The Oroville Dam in 2017, during the spillway near-disaster.
Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

As if Northern California did not already have enough to worry about with the ever-growing Camp Fire in Butte County (which has burned an estimated 125,000 acres and killed at least 42 people), the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Monday that the fire may also threaten the recently repaired Oroville Dam.

The dam last made news in 2017 when a completely different type of disaster—i.e.,excessive rains and crumbling spillways—threatened to flood out Butte County cities.

The dam held despite record amounts of rain and decades of neglect; the state recently finished a $1.1 billion repair job on what is the tallest dam in the country.

Now the Camp Fire poses a potential threat to dam infrastructure; the Oroville Dam creates a reservoir of 3.5 million acre feet of water and generates enough electricity to power up to 737,000 homes for a year.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle:

Employees of the state Department of Water Resources, with the help of firefighting crews, were cutting brush and watering down landscapes around Lake Oroville to prevent the 117,000-acre blaze from damaging the reservoir’s infrastructure, including the 770-foot-tall Oroville Dam.

[...] State water officials feared that strong winds from the northeast could blow the fire south to the reservoir’s power plants and water-supply facilities, still some 10 miles away from the blaze.

On Tuesday, Cal Fire’s latest fire map shows the southernmost edge of the fire sitting a little over seven miles north of the dam locale.

While many other locations are in more immediate danger—towns like Butte Valley, Helltown, Pentz, Wicks Corner, Oregon City, and Chico sit much closer to the fire’s edge—the proximity of the inferno to the dam itself is still worrisome given that the Camp Fire consumed nearly 110 square miles just in its first 24 hours.

Although the fire has advanced south of its Monday position, Department of Water Resources spokesperson Erin Mellon assures Curbed SF “there is no threat to Oroville Dam” and “DWR is taking precautionary measures,” including ceasing construction on spillway repair and construction.