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Weekend of fear looms for Californians in face of wildfires

GREENVILLE, Calif. — People living in the scenic forestlands of Northern California found themselves facing a weekend of fear as wildfires threatened to reduce thousands of homes to ashes.

The Dixie Fire that incinerated much of the gold rush-era town of Greenville threatened more than 10,000 buildings in the northern Sierra Nevada. It had engulfed an area larger than the size of New York City.

According to the state Department of Fire and Forestry Protection, it was the most significant current wildland blaze in the nation and the third-largest in recorded California history.

Wind-driven flames destroyed dozens of homes and most of Greenville’s downtown on Wednesday and Thursday, and also heavily damaged Canyondam, a hamlet with a population of about three dozen people. The fire reached Chester but crews managed to protect homes and businesses there, officials said.

Charlene Mays kept her gas station in Chester open as long as she could, telling weary firefighters not to apologize for the trail of ash their boots left on the floor. But when the small town on the northwest shore of Lake Almanor lost power, Mays decided it was time for her to leave.

She ran home to grab a box of valuables, including her husband’s class ring and some jewelry. The smoke was so thick it was hard to breathe. Chunks of ash broke apart as they hit the ground, making a sound like broken glass.

That was two days ago. Since then, Mays has been living in the parking lot of Lassen College in Susanville. Her husband stayed behind to maintain some water tanks firefighters were using. It’s just her, a miniature pinscher chihuahua named Jedidiah and a pit bull named Bear.

Her home was still standing on Friday but her fate was bound with the direction of the wind. She wasn’t alone.

I’ve got probably 30 of my regular customers right here,” she said.

The Dixie Fire, named for the road where it started, now spans an area of 679 square miles (1,760 square kilometers) and was just 21% contained. No injuries or deaths have been reported. Weather at the fire site was expected to have higher humidity and calmer winds Saturday with temperatures topping 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) instead of the 40-mph (64-kph) gusts and triple-digit highs recorded earlier in the week.

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