Mountain town in northern California devastated by wind-driven wildfire

A wind-driven wildfire tore through a northern California mountain town, leaving much of the downtown in ashes and crews braced for another explosive run of flames in the midst of dangerous weather.

The Dixie fire, swollen by bone-dry vegetation and gusts of more than 60 km/h, raged through the northern Sierra Nevada town of Greenville Wednesday evening. Fire officials confirmed that some buildings were destroyed but had no details.

However, a photographer on assignment for The Associated Press described seeing a gas station, hotel and bar burned to the ground.

The town, which dates to California’s Gold Rush era, has some buildings more than a century old.

As the fire’s north and eastern sides exploded, the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office issued a Facebook posting warning the town’s approximately 800 residents: “You are in imminent danger and you MUST leave now!”

The three-week-old blaze was the state’s largest wildfire and had blackened more than1,126 square kilometres and had already burned dozens of homes before making its new run.

‘We did everything we could’

Early in the week, some 5,000 firefighters had made progress on the blaze, saving some threatened homes, bulldozing pockets of unburned vegetation and managing to surround a third of the perimeter.

“We did everything we could,” fire spokesperson Mitch Matlow said. “Sometimes it’s just not enough.”

More fire engines and bulldozers were being ordered to bolster the fight, he said. On Wednesday, the fire grew substantially and an additional 4,000 people were ordered to evacuate, bringing nearly 26,500 people in several counties under evacuation orders, he said.

The fire levelled multiple historic buildings and dozens of homes in central Greenville. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

The Way Station is one of the properties destroyed by the fire that ravaged the California community. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

Operations chief Jay Walter moves a light post that was blocking Highway 89 in Greenville. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

Flames leaped from trees as the Dixie fire jumped Highway 89 north of Greenville earlier this week. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

Red flag weather conditions of high heat, low humidity and gusty afternoon and evening winds erupted Wednesday and were expected to be a continued threat through Thursday evening.

The trees, grass and brush were so dry that “if an ember lands, you’re virtually guaranteed to start a new fire,” Matlow said.

“The fire behaviour analyst said every single fire hazard is maxed out.”

The blaze was also running parallel to a canyon area that served as a chimney, so hot that it created enormous pyrocumulus columns of smoke that bring chaotic winds, making it “critically erratic” and hard to predict the direction of growth, he added.

Dawn Garofalo watched the soaring cloud grow from the west side of Lake Almanor, where she fled with a dog and two horses from a friend’s property near Greenville.

“There’s only one way in and one way out,” she said. “I didn’t want to be stuck up there if the fire came through.”

From her campsite on the lake bed, she watched the fire glowing on the horizon before dawn.

Heat advisories, warnings

About 240 kilometres to the west, the lightning-sparked McFarland fire threatened remote homes along the Trinity River in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The fire was only five per cent contained.

Similar risky weather was expected across Southern California, where heat advisories and warnings were issued for interior valleys, mountains and deserts for much of the week.

Heat waves and historic drought tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight in America’s West. Scientists say climate change has made the region much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

More than 20,000 firefighters and support personnel were battling 97 large, active wildfires covering 7,560 square kilometres in 13 U.S. states, the National Interagency Fire Center said.

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