Mountain town in Northern California devastated by wind-driven wildfire

A three-week-old wildfire engulfed a tiny Northern California mountain town, levelling most of its historic downtown and leaving blocks of homes in ashes as crews braced for another explosive run of flames Thursday amid 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. 

A gas station, church, hotel, museum and bar were among the fixtures gutted in the town dating back to California’s Gold Rush era where some wooden buildings were more than 100 years old.

A fire-damaged street sign marks Main Street in the decimated downtown of Greenville, Calif. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

The fire “burnt down our entire downtown. Our historical buildings, families’ homes, small businesses, and our children’s schools are completely lost,” Plumas County supervisor Kevin Goss wrote on Facebook.

Plumas County Sheriff Tom Johns, a lifelong resident of Greenville, said that “well over” 100 homes were destroyed, as well as businesses.

“My heart is crushed by what has occurred there,” he said.

“We lost Greenville tonight,” Rep. Doug LaMalfa, who represents the area, said in an emotional Facebook video. “There’s just no words.”

A melted light pole is bent around a sign in downtown Greenville, Calif., as a result of the Dixie fire. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

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

A similar warning was issued Thursday as flames pushed toward the southeast in the direction of another tiny mountain community, Taylorsville, about 16 kilometres southeast of Greenville.

To the northwest, crews were protecting homes in the town of Chester. Residents there were among thousands under evacuation orders or warnings in several counties.

No injuries or deaths were immediately reported.

Battalion chief Sergio Mora watches as the Dixie fire tears through the Greenville community of Plumas County, Calif., on Wednesday. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

Margaret Elysia Garcia, an artist and writer who has been in Southern California waiting out the fire, watched video of her Greenville office in flames. It’s where she kept every journal she’s written in since second grade and a hand edit of a novel on top of her grandfather’s roll-top desk.

“We’re in shock. It’s not that we didn’t think this could happen to us,” she said. “At the same time, it took our whole town.”

Firefighters had to deal with people reluctant to leave on Wednesday. Their refusals meant that firefighters spent precious time loading people into cars to ferry them out, said Jake Cagle, an incident management operations section chief.

“We have firefighters that are getting guns pulled out on them, because people don’t want to evacuate,” he said.

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

The blaze that broke out July 14 is the state’s largest wildfire and had blackened more than 1,300 square kilometres, territory larger than the city of Los Angeles. 

The cause was under investigation. But Pacific Gas & Electric has said it may have been sparked when a tree fell on one of its power lines.

The fire was near the town of Paradise, which was largely destroyed in a 2018 wildfire that became the nation’s deadliest in at least a century and was blamed on PG&E equipment.

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

Ken Donnell left Greenville on Wednesday, thinking he’d be right back after a quick errand a few towns over, but couldn’t return as the flames swept through. All he has now are the clothes on his back and his old pickup truck, he said. He’s pretty sure his office and house, with a bag he had prepared for evacuation, are gone.

Donnell remembered helping victims of 2018’s devastating Camp Fire, in which about 100 friends lost their homes.

“Now I have a thousand friends lose their home in a day,” he said.

‘We did everything we could’

By Thursday, the Dixie fire had become the sixth-largest fire in state history, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said. Four of the state’s other five largest wildfires were all in 2020.

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

The fire forced Lassen Volcanic National Park to close to visitors.

Dozens of homes had already burned before the flames made a new run on Wednesday. The U.S. Forest Service said initial reports show that firefighters saved about a quarter of the structures in Greenville.

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

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

About 160 kilometres south, officials said between 35 and 40 homes and other structures burned in the fast-moving River fire that broke out Wednesday near Colfax, a town of about 2,000. Within hours, it ripped through nearly 10 square kilometres of dry brush and trees. There was no containment and about 6,000 people were under evacuation orders across Placer and Nevada counties, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In Colfax, resident Jamie Brown ate breakfast at a downtown restaurant Thursday while waiting to learn if his house was still standing.

He evacuated his property near Rollins Lake on Wednesday when “it looked like the whole town was going to burn down.” Conditions had calmed a bit and he was hoping for the best.

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