“Apocalyptic scenes in every direction”: Raging wildfire destroys much of Northern California mountain town of Greenville

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

The Dixie Fire, swollen by bone-dry vegetation and 40-mph gusts, raged through the northern Sierra Nevada town of Greenville Wednesday evening. A gas station, hotel and bar were among many structures gutted in the town, which dates to California’s Gold Rush era and has some buildings more than a century old.

It left “apocalyptic scenes in every direction,” said CBS News’ Bradley Blackburn.

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

As the fire’s north and eastern sides exploded, the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office issued a Facebook post 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 well over 435 square miles, burning dozens of homes before making its new run.

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.

More fire engines and bulldozers were being ordered to bolster the fight, Matlow said.

Sadly many structures have been lost on the #DixieFire today video taken along Hwy 89 Eastern Greenville. pic.twitter.com/hOT7N8tI3B

We just entered Greenville on Hwy 89 This video was taken from Bidwell & Ann St. I’m so sorry for the town of Greenville. #DixieFire pic.twitter.com/vtAiYpy1Dl

On Wednesday, the fire grew by thousands of acres and an additional 4,000 people were ordered to evacuate, bringing nearly 26,500 people in several counties under evacuation orders, he said.

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 Dixie Fire and several others in that part of the state “could see 30-40 mph wind gusts for at least 6 hours” Thursday.  Some could see those wind gusts for as many as 10 hours before things calm down a bit Thursday night,” said CBS News weather producer David Parkinson.

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 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.

About 150 miles 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 5% contained after burning through nearly 25 square 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.

This fire season is on track to be California’s worst ever, CBS News’ Blackburn points out.

Governor Gavin Newsom said Wednesday, “Five-hundred-eighty-thousand acres have burned. Put that in perspective: Last year, it was about 260,000 acres, so more than double the acres burned so far year to date, and we’re just, you know, we’re just getting started.”

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 2,919 square miles in 13 U.S. states, the National Interagency Fire Center said.

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