California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in three Northern California counties after a wildfire that has destroyed 64 homes advanced on a tiny community at the doorstep of a national park.
Firefighters scrambled Wednesday 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 prepared to evacuate Mineral as flames roared 25 metres high on the side of Highway 36, the main route into town, and burned through a canyon where firefighters struggled to make a stand. Crews also bulldozed a trench to serve as a last line of defence between the fire and the town as thick smoke and ash choked the air for miles.
"All the vegetation is ready to burn. Once the afternoon winds begin to blow up the canyon, you have what we call blow-up conditions," Chico Fire Division Chief Shane Lauderdale said.
"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."
Beth Glenn, whose family owns most businesses in tiny Mineral, said the town survived a fire that roared up the same canyon in the 1990s. She feared the Ponderosa blaze could be worse.
"I don't know what's going to happen tonight," said Glenn, 58, whose motel and general store in the heart of Mineral were being used by fire officials to disseminate information to residents.
Glenn said the fire had prompted cancellations for the motel during its typically busiest month of August, and she was forced to tell guests not to come after losing power for five days.
The lightning-sparked fire was threatening Mineral after crews had turned it away from two small communities to the west, Shingletown and Manton.
More than 3,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in Tehama and Shasta counties, about 200 kilometres north of the state capital, Sacramento, although evacuation orders were lifted by Wednesday in Shingletown and several other areas.
The blaze was 50 per cent contained by 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 said 64 homes had been lost.
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 and another that threatened a town in Southern California.
Brown's state-of-emergency declaration, which frees up funds to help combat the fires, cited the Ponderosa blaze, along with a fire in nearby Plumas County, which is roughly twice as big.