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Monster wildfire turns California mountain town to rubble

"We lost Greenville tonight," the congressman who represents the town of 1,200 said Wednesday night.

(CN) — The Dixie Fire continued to burn the remnants of what was Greenville, California, a historic mining town situated in the northern Sierra Nevada as it raged out of control Thursday afternoon threatening a scattershot of small mountain towns in the region.

Firefighters in proximity to the small mountain town of Crescent Mills made frantic calls to animal control to retrieve animals in the path of the inferno but then opted to release them instead to give them a chance to flee the advancing fire. 

The scene paints a picture of the sixth-largest fire in state history that only continues to grow at a rapid pace. 

The three-week-old blaze ripped through the town of Greenville, a quaint village of about 1,200 tucked in the rolling territory between Lake Almanor to the north and Quincy to the south in Plumas County. The fire began Wednesday evening, but whatever remained of the town Thursday was engulfed as high winds intensified the flames.

"My defiantly quirky, beautiful adopted hometown turned into a ghost town last night," said Meg Upton, a reporter for the Plumas News.

A hotel and bar dating back to the Gold Rush era were razed by the rapidly spreading fire, driven by fierce winds gusting at upwards of 40 mph. Some of the buildings in Greenville have stood for more than a century. 

“We lost Greenville tonight,” said U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, who represents the area, in a Facebook video. “There's just no words.”

Firefighters said they struggled mightily against the blaze in an effort to save the town, but were unable to muster sufficient resources given the weather conditions. 

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

The fire grew by 50,000 acres overnight, an exponential growth driven by what firefighters are characterizing as “extreme fire behavior.”

A red flag warning will remain in effect throughout much of Thursday before winds are expected to die down around 8 p.m.

The town of Chester, population 2,000, remains entirely evacuated and witnesses have confirmed a historic bakery on the west side of town is gone.  

The fire has burned about 320,000 acres and containment stands at 35%. It sparked on July 21 and while Cal Fire continues to investigate, utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric filed a report with the court overseeing an ongoing criminal case against it that equipment in the area where the fire began had tripped and a worker had seen a tree laying against a power line. 

About 5,000 firefighters have been deployed to the fire and progress was made earlier in the week, with forces managing to stave off property destruction. But the combination of low humidity and high winds made the fight more difficult on Wednesday overnight into Thursday.

Conditions have been exacerbated by a prolonged drought that has afflicted much of the American West and California in particular. 

Matlow said that any ember that travels from the main fire is virtually guaranteed to start a new fire because of tinderbox conditions. The Dixie Fire currently stands as the sixth largest fire on record in California. 

Other parts of the Golden State experienced dangerous conditions as well, with the River Fire breaking out Wednesday near Colfax, a foothills town of about 2,000 in Placer County. The fire began at around 2 p.m. at the Bear River Campground and has already destroyed dozens of homes. 

The blaze has so far burned about 2,500 acres as of Thursday morning and is zero percent contained, but firefighters have made headway as of Thursday afternoon and have not experienced the same extreme fire behavior exhibited on the Dixie Fire.  

The fire is heading east toward Highway 174, and with Colfax under direct threat thousands in both Nevada and Placer counties have been ordered to evacuate.

No casualties have been reported in either fire. 

Wednesday was a bad day for the entire American West, as nine new fires were reported across five states, including three in Washington state, two each in California and Oregon and one each in Idaho and Montana, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

To date, 100 large fires have scorched a total of 1.9 million acres across 14 states, including Alaska and Hawaii. 

The number of total fires and acreage burned is well ahead of the rate established last year, which was one of the worst fire seasons on record in many states. 

Follow Matthew Renda on Twitter

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