The main thoroughfare in a historic California gold-rush town was in smoldering ruins on Thursday, hours after the state’s largest wildfire engulfed the hamlet of Greenville in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Fire crews were still working on Thursday to extinguish fires in Greenville, about 160 miles (260 km) north of Sacramento, after the Dixie Fire roared through on the previous night.
As apocalyptic images from the burnt-out center of town spread, showing Greenville’s quaint main strip in heaps of ashes and debris as smoke rose into the hazy sky, people from the area grew emotional.
“We lost Greenville tonight. And there’s just no words for how us in government haven’t been able to get the job done,” U.S. Representative Doug LaMalfa, who represents the area, said in a video posted on Facebook, pausing to gather himself.
“My heart is just aching for what people are dealing with up there right now,” LaMalfa said, a huge billow of smoke appearing in the distance over his shoulder.
Greenville, population 800, was founded more than 150 years ago when nearby gold mines attracted settlers and merchants to the picturesque town in the Indian Valley.
“My defiantly quirky, beautiful adopted hometown turned into a ghost town last night,” wrote Meg Upton, a reporter for the Plumas News, in an online article.
The Dixie Fire has been raging in the area for three weeks, burning 322,000 acres (130,000 hectares), and was 35% contained as of Thursday morning, officials said.
It was among the more than 12 wildfires burning around the state.
The River Fire, which started on Wednesday and has charred 2,400 acres in Nevada and Placer Counties, forced thousands of people to evacuate including most of the town of Colfax. More than 50 homes or other structures were destroyed and another 30 damaged, while the fire was zero percent contained, Cal Fire said.
California, which typically experiences peak fire season later in the year, was on pace to suffer even more burnt acreage this year than last year, which was the worst fire season on record.
California’s five largest wildfires in history have all occurred in the last three seasons, burning more than 2.5 million acres and destroying 3,700 structures. The Dixie Fire is the sixth-largest in state history.
It was unclear how many structures were destroyed in Greenville as fire crews were still assessing the damage, Cal Fire spokesperson Mitch Matlow told Reuters. There were no injuries or deaths reported, he said.
But one man was missing after he told his sister he was evacuating, the Plumas News reported. The Plumas County Sheriff’s Office had ordered Greenville residents to evacuate on Wednesday.
The Dixie Fire started on July 14 in the area of the Feather River Canyon, about 20 miles from Paradise, a town destroyed by a wildfire in 2018 that killed 86 people.
The California Office of Emergency Services said on Thursday that about 16,000 people had been evacuated from several fires burning across five counties in the northern part of the state.
(Reporting by Fred Greaves in Greenville, Calif.Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago and Daniel Trotta in Carlsbad, Calif.Editing by Alistair Bell and Matthew Lewis)