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Dixie Fire destroys much of California town as officials warn: ‘You MUST leave now’

Charred buildings and smoldering piles of rubble could be seen across Greenville, Calif., as the Dixie Fire tore through Northern California on Aug. 4. (Video: The Washington Post)
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The fast-growing Dixie Fire has left much of a Northern California community in ruins, leaving behind charred building frames on stretches of scorched road.

Now the largest wildfire the state has faced this year, it has burned for more than three weeks and is now 35 percent contained. It grew to more than 361,812 acres as of Thursday evening amid a red-flag warning — indicating the risk of “extreme fire behavior” caused by hot, dry and windy conditions.

“We’re seeing truly frightening fire behavior,” said Chris Carlton, Plumas National Forest supervisor, during a Thursday evening briefing on the Dixie Fire. “We have a lot of veteran firefighters who have served for 20, 30 years and have never seen behavior like this, especially day after day. We really are in uncharted territory.”

The U.S. Forest Service said it anticipates more concerning fire behavior, predicting it will torch down the landscape’s trees. The inferno’s urgency, size and extreme behavior have led authorities to consider it “top priority” — with 25 percent of the country’s firefighting resources distributed to the Dixie Fire operation. A combination of westbound winds and smoke would help stabilize the fire and cool the surface, aiding the operation, said Ryan Walbrun, incident meteorologist for the Dixie Fire.

Still, even if conditions alleviate some of the challenges, the conflagration has already claimed a town.

The fire on Wednesday evening tore through Greenville, a town with a population of less than 1,000. The community, which dates back to California’s Gold Rush era, was ordered to evacuate earlier in the week as firefighters tried to protect buildings from the advancing flames.

“I can tell you a good portion of the town of Greenville was destroyed,” Cal Fire spokesman Rick Carhart told The Washington Post on Thursday. “I don’t know if it’s half or more or less, but there were pretty heavy losses.”

By Wednesday evening, the Dixie Fire had turned Greenville’s downtown into piles of rubble. Videos of the area posted on social media showed buildings reduced to mounds of charred metal and ash and flames lingering in empty brick frames. One video showed firefighters hosing down the Plumas Bank in Greenville, which was still standing.

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Tom Johns, Plumas County sheriff and a “lifelong resident of Greenville,” said more than 100 homes and businesses were destroyed. The whole downtown — an area boasting historic buildings dating back to the 1800s — perished in the flames.

“My heart is crushed by what has occurred there,” he said emotionally. “The folks that have lost residences and businesses — I’ve met some of them already. Their life is now forever changed, and all I can tell you is I’m sorry.”

Officials on Wednesday urged residents to flee, shifting efforts to helping residents evacuate as the flames approached.

“If you are still in the Greenville area, you are in imminent danger and you MUST leave now!!” the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office posted on Facebook. “If you remain, emergency responders may not be able to assist you.”

California’s Dixie Fire has burned for more than three weeks, scorching at least 440,000 acres as of Aug. 7. (Video: Reuters)

The fire is one of 100 active large blazes in the United States, mostly torching parts of western states that have been plagued by exceptional heat and drought, exacerbated by climate change. Those tinderbox conditions have fueled historically large wildfires in what’s anticipated to be a severe fire season in California.

Jake Cagle, an operations section chief at the multiagency command, said there had not been an “imminent threat” to Greenville earlier in the day. Many residents chose not to evacuate, he said. But by late afternoon the fire grew more intense. No civilian or firefighter injuries or fatalities had been reported as of Thursday evening.

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The Dixie Fire is not the first to hit Greenville; the town suffered a devastating fire in 1881 that destroyed many buildings on the north side of its Main Street, according to a local organization, the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.), who represents areas affected by the Dixie Fire, posted photos on Facebook of a thick haze of smoke lingering over structures now in ruins.

“We lost Greenville tonight,” LaMalfa said in a video posted on Facebook. He added: “We have to stop making this happen by paying attention to what is obvious. Camp Fire, Carr Fire … now this. We’ve got to do better.”

Meanwhile, another nearby blaze — the River Fire — had grown rapidly in less than a day, forcing thousands to evacuate.

The Dixie Fire’s sudden swell this week forced mandatory evacuation orders to expand north of Greenville and Lake Almanor, a resort community that is home to people who were displaced by the deadly 2018 Camp Fire. Homes and buildings in the nearby community of Chester, which had also been ordered to evacuate, were sprayed with fire retardant as the blaze threatened the area.

On Thursday evening, evacuation orders were also issued to communities south of Greenville — including Taylorsville, a town of some 198 people living by the tree-filled, rolling hills by the foot of Mount Jura.

Carhart said that even as firefighters work to defend structures as flames approach, they will pull back if it becomes unsafe.

“Our crews get in these places where the fires are coming through. They set up structure protection activities. But if a point comes where it is not safe for our firefighters to be in there, we pull them out,” he said.

The cause of the Dixie Fire, which sparked July 13, is under investigation. Pacific Gas and Electric, California’s largest utility, noted that some of its equipment may have played a role in sparking the fire, as well as the smaller Fly Fire, which later merged with the Dixie Fire.

In Nevada and Placer counties, about 100 miles south of the Dixie Fire, the River Fire grew rapidly to 2,400 acres as of Thursday after starting early Wednesday. The fire was not contained at all as of Thursday morning.

Nearly 16,000 people were under evacuation orders across the state for all the fires burning in California as of Thursday morning, including more than 8,000 people under evacuation orders in Butte, Tehama, Plumas and Lassen counties and nearly 7,300 people under evacuation orders in Placer and Nevada counties, according to the California governor’s office of emergency services

Placer County Sheriff Devon Bell warned residents: “If you’re ordered to go, get out.”

With a string of fires torching California, Stephen Walsh, Red Cross regional communications director, said the organization has moved quickly to provide refuge to people across the state.

“Wednesday night was probably one of the busiest nights because we’re dealing with this new River Fire too,” he said. “It’s not just the Dixie Fire anymore. We’re dealing with a lot of different events and a lot of people.”

Walsh said the Red Cross has two shelters designated toward Dixie Fire evacuations, with a total of 179 people taking refuge. At the regional level, the organization counted 391 individuals within its Northern California shelters.

Destiny Spang fled Greenville hours before the blaze engulfed the town she has lived in since she was a second-grader. With much of it turned to rubble, the 17-year-old said she keeps memories of the tightknit community close to her heart.

“The way I’ll remember Greenville is not the Dixie fire,” Spang said. “I’ll remember it as my childhood, as the beautiful small town we grew up in and only we would get. Others who didn’t grow up there wouldn’t get it.”

Spang said she still struggles with facing the reality of a destroyed community. “I don’t think any of us will actually feel the reality of it,” she said, “until they let us in the see what is left.”

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