The Dixie Fire is 35 percent contained and is expected to grow – it is one of the 100 large fires burning in 14 US states.
A wildfire raging in Northern California exploded in size overnight, becoming the third-largest wildfire in state history amid high temperatures and strong winds. Better weather conditions were expected to aid the firefight on Friday.
The Dixie Fire grew by 285 square kilometres (110 square miles) between Thursday night and Friday morning, making the blaze the largest wildfire currently raging in the nation.
“This is going to be a long firefight,” said Capt Mitch Matlow, spokesman of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The fire was 35 percent contained by Friday morning but was largely expanding within the perimeter firefighters previously established. It now spans an area of 1,751sq km (676sq miles).
On Wednesday, the fire tore through the little California mountain town of Greenville, which resident Eva Gorman said was a place of community and strong character, where neighbours volunteered to move furniture, colourful baskets of flowers brightened Main Street, and writers, musicians, mechanics and chicken farmers mingled.
Now, it is ashes.
As hot, bone-dry, gusty weather hit California, the fire raged through the Gold Rush-era Sierra Nevada community of about 1,000, incinerating much of the downtown that included wooden buildings more than a century old.
The winds were expected to calm and change direction heading into the weekend but that good news came too late for Gorman.
“It’s just completely devastating. We’ve lost our home, my business, our whole downtown area is gone,” said Gorman, who heeded evacuation warnings and left town with her husband a week-and-a-half ago as the Dixie Fire approached.
She managed to grab some photos off the wall, her favourite jewellery and important documents but could not help but think of the family treasures left behind.
“My grandmother’s dining room chairs, my great-aunt’s bed from Italy. There is a photo I keep visualising in my mind of my son when he was two. He’s 37 now,” she said. “At first you think, ‘It’s OK, I have the negatives.’ And then you realise, ‘Oh. No. I don’t.’”
Officials had not yet assessed the number of destroyed buildings, but Plumas County Sheriff Todd Johns estimated on Thursday that “well over” 100 homes had burned in and near the town.
“My heart is crushed by what has occurred there,” said Johns, a lifelong Greenville resident.
About a two-hour drive south, officials said some 100 homes and other buildings burned in the fast-moving River Fire that broke out on Wednesday near Colfax, a town of about 2,000. There was no containment and about 6,000 people were ordered to evacuate in Placer and Nevada counties, state fire officials said.
The three-week-old Dixie Fire was one of 100 active, large fires burning in 14 states, most in the west where historic drought has left lands parched and ripe for ignition.
The Dixie Fire had consumed about 175,153 hectares (432,813 acres), according to an estimate released on Friday morning. That is 1,751sq km (676sq miles) — moving the blaze from the state’s sixth-largest wildfire ever to its third-largest overnight.
Heatwaves and historic drought tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight in the American 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.