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In Greenville, residents had also been reluctant to evacuate, certain the blaze would not reach their town.

“I tried to defend it to the last second, and the fire just pushed me out,” said Jose Garcia, 34, who lost his home and his taco restaurant. He said that he had only seconds to escape. “We lost everything.”

Others said that they had been reluctant to leave after evacuation orders were later lifted, and then reinstated.

“We were probably some of the last people out of there,” said Teresa Clark, 49, who said she had evacuated the first time together with her mother, who uses a wheelchair, partner and pets, but that the cost and difficulty — and the fact that the fires had not initially reached Greenville — made her reluctant to leave a second time.

But on Wednesday afternoon, explosive, hot flames were rapidly approaching. “I knew our town was going up,” she said. “That’s when the sheriff pulled up and said, ‘You guys need to leave.’”

Ms. Clark added, “I was scared to death.”

Dan Kearns, a volunteer firefighter, described fire “raining out of the sky,” as he did his best to put out spot fires in the town, before it became unsafe to continue. The fires “don’t just spread, they literally explode,” he said.

“No one expected to lose the whole town.”

By the weekend, Greenville — a Gold Rush-era town once lined with historic buildings — was left in charred ruins; lamp posts were buckled and trucks were nothing but smoldering husks. The air was thick with smoke and the stench of burning inorganic materials. All was quiet, but for the sound of cracking trees.

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