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California wildfire burns at least two dozen homes in small mountain town

A California wildfire that trapped dozens of campers over the weekend burned through at least two dozen homes in the small mountain town of Big Creek, a fire official said Monday.

Chris Donnelly, the longtime chief of the volunteer fire department in the nearby town of Huntington Lake, said in an interview that the Creek Fire roared through the community of about 200 Saturday night.

No injuries have been reported, he said, and there didn’t appear to be any damage to the town’s hydroelectric plant, one of the oldest and largest hydroelectric facilities in the country.

No injuries have been reported, he said, and there didn’t appear to be any damage to the town’s hydroelectric plant, one of the oldest and largest hydroelectric facilities in the country.

The plant is owned and operated by Southern California Edison, which also owns the homes where its workers live. The fire didn’t appear to have damaged them, Donnelly said.

A Southern California Edison spokesman, David Song, said the company hadn’t confirmed that.

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Donnelly said at least two dozen privately owned homes on a road that juts into a canyon southwest of town were destroyed. Three propane tanks totaling 11,000 gallons exploded, he said, and an elementary school also caught fire, although it wasn’t clear whether it burned.

The school’s superintendent, Toby Wait, told The Fresno Bee that a church, a library and a historic general store appear to have survived the fire, although Wait’s home burned after his family was evacuated early Saturday.

“Words cannot even begin to describe the devastation of this community,” he told the newspaper.

Fires burn behind buildings in Big Creek, Calif., on Saturday.Derek Ratzel

Video of the blaze taken by a paramedic from Fresno, Derek Ratzel, showed giant flames and a plume of smoke towering over Southern California Edison offices.

Donnelly said firefighters battling the blaze ran out of water Saturday night. Two plant employees who had been evacuated from Big Creek raced back into the flames to establish a new water supply and tie it into the hydrant system, Donnelly said.

“They went, ‘OK, we’ll do it for our town,'” he said, adding: “It’s a heroic story.”

The fire, which began Friday, exploded to a massive 78,790 acres by Monday afternoon in the Sierra Nevada mountains, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It was zero percent contained.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, said the fire was so intense that it had created its own thunderstorms with lightning and wind but no rain.

Over the weekend, more than 200 people staying at a campground in Sierra National Forest were evacuated by helicopter after the fire quickly surrounded them, making the only road out of the forest impassable.

A photo from the California National Guard showed dozens of evacuees crammed into a Chinook helicopter.

The blaze was one of dozens that firefighters were trying to extinguish as a record heat wave baked huge parts of the state over Labor Day weekend. Red flag warnings — the National Weather Service’s most serious fire alert — were in effect for much of California through Wednesday as powerful winds were expected to sweep across the state.

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A record 2 million acres have burned in California so far this year. Scientists have partly attributed the state’s increasingly intense wildfire seasons to climate change, which has made the season longer and hotter and its vegetation more combustible. They’ve also pointed to a chronic lack of managed and prescribed burns that have allowed those wildland fuels to mount.

Tim Stelloh is a reporter for NBC News based in California.

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