California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in three Northern California counties on Wednesday after a wildfire that has already destroyed 64 homes advanced with 23m flames on a tiny community at the doorstep of a national park.
Firefighters scrambled to head off the so-called Ponderosa Fire, which had scorched 9,700 hectares, before it reached the outskirts of Mineral, a community of less than 200 people just south of Lassen National Volcanic Park.
Authorities issued an evacuation warning for Mineral as flames roared 23m high on the side of Highway 36, the main route into town, and burned through a rocky canyon where firefighters struggled to make a stand.
Crews also bulldozed a trench to serve as a last line of defense between the fire and the town as thick smoke and ash choked the air.
“All the vegetation is ready to burn and so once the afternoon winds begin to blow up the canyon, those fuels burn aggressively and you have what we call blow-up conditions,” Chico Fire Division Chief Shane Lauderdale told reporters.
“It pushes the firefighters out of the area they are working and goes over the [containment] line and creates situations where we have to back out,” Lauderdale said.
Beth Glenn, who said her family owns most of the businesses in Mineral, said the town survived a fire that roared up the same canyon in the 1990s, but she worried the Ponderosa blaze could be worse.
The lightning-sparked fire was threatening Mineral after crews had turned it away from two small communities to the west, Shingletown and Manton. All told, more than 3,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in the rural California counties of Tehama and Shasta, about 200km north of state capital Sacramento.
The blaze was 50 percent contained as of Wednesday afternoon, fire officials said, but they listed 500 homes, 10 commercial properties and 30 outbuildings as still at risk of being consumed by the explosive fire.
Officials say 64 homes had already been lost, along with 20 other structures.
The Ponderosa fire is one of dozens burning across drought-parched states in the US West, including a blaze that destroyed dozens of homes this week in Washington state.