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Raging Fire Guts California Gold Rush town

‘We did everything we could’: raging fire guts California Gold Rush town. Dixie fire tore through mountain town of Greenville on Wednesday evening, leaving much of the downtown in ashes. The fast-moving Dixie fire tore through the northern California mountain town of Greenville on Wednesday evening, leaving much of the downtown in ashes.

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A gas station, hotel and bar were among many structures gutted in the quiet, close-knit Sierra Nevada town. The community, which was partially destroyed by an 1881 fire, dates to California’s Gold Rush era and has some buildings more than a century old.

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

Scenes like the one in Greenville have become all too familiar in this part of California. The three-week-old Dixie fire, the state’s largest wildfire this year, has blackened well over 435 sq miles (1,127 sq km) and burnt dozens of homes.

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.

But on Wednesday, the fire grew by thousands of acres and an additional 4,000 people were ordered to evacuate. As the fire’s north and eastern sides, 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!”

‘One way in and one way out’

Firefighters are bracing for tough days ahead. Red flag weather conditions of high heat, low humidity and gusty afternoon and evening winds 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, the fire spokesman, said.

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

Dawn Garofalo fled with a dog and two horses from a friend’s property near Greenville, and watched the soaring cloud grow from the west side of Lake Almanor, a popular recreation site in northern California.

“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 dry lake bed, she watched the fire glowing on the horizon before dawn.

Megan Brown, a sixth-generation cattle rancher in Butte county, cried and then vomited when she saw images of the destruction of the town where spent childhood summers riding horses and buying sweets from a local candy shop. She had just visited her father in the area last week.

“It’s a quiet, close-knit town – everyone knows everybody,” she said. “It’s a lot of hardworking, salt-of-the-earth loggers and cattle ranchers.”

Brown’s father is still at the family ranch near Greenville, and though he is relying on a generator for power and could soon lose cell service, he won’t abandon their 200 pair of cattle.
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“He refuses to evacuate because that’s where the cows are. He’s been calling every five minutes. He’s a mess. He’s obviously upset,” she said. But, she added, with regular fires in the region in recent years, “He’s had practice at this point.”
Fire destruction is the ‘new normal’

In 2018, the nearby Camp fire all but leveled the towns of Paradise and Magalia, killing 85 people. Last year, 16 people perished in the nearby North Complex fire.

Fire has threatened both the family ranches near Greenville and where Brown works down in the valley. Smoke from the Camp fire killed some of her animals, and in 2017 they lost animals and historic buildings to another fire.

“I’m still trying to process when our ranch burned down,” she said. “I know it’s my new normal and I’m just dealing with it.”

By Thursday, the Dixie fire had become the sixth-largest fire in state history, the California department of forestry and Ffire protection said. Four of the state’s other five largest wildfires were all in 2020.

Meanwhile, neighboring Lassen Volcanic national park was closed to all visitors because of the fire.

The Dixie fire is just one of many burning across the American west. Also in California, between 35 and 40 homes and other structures burned this week in the fast-moving River fire.

That blaze broke out Wednesday near Colfax, and within hours swelled to more than 2 sq miles . There was no containment and thousands of people are under evacuation orders in Placer and Nevada counties.

About 150 miles (240 km) to the west of the Dixie fire, the lightning-sparked McFarland fire threatened remote homes along the Trinity River in the Shasta-Trinity national forest. The fire was only 5% contained after burning through nearly 25 sq miles of drought-stricken vegetation.

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.

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