By Mary Slosson
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - Firefighters made progress in blocking a raging wildfire from barreling down a rugged canyon toward a community at the doorstep of a national park on Thursday, but the blaze threatened more than 900 homes and buildings.
The so-called Ponderosa fire was burning down a steep, rocky canyon that officials described as a "mini grand canyon" just five miles from the rural town of Mineral, home to fewer than 200 people on the edge of Lassen National Volcanic Park.
"Things change but it's looking good," said Jim DiDio, spokesman for the Tehama County Fire Department. "We still have an evacuation warning in effect for that little town. It is still at risk."
All told, more than 3,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in the rural California counties of Tehama and Shasta, about 125 miles north of the state capital, Sacramento, although evacuation orders had been lifted by Wednesday afternoon from Shingletown and several other areas.
The Ponderosa fire is one of dozens burning across drought-parched states in the U.S. West in an unusually fierce fire year, including a blaze that destroyed dozens of homes this week in Washington state and another that threatened a town in southern California.
In Mineral, where residents faced an evacuation order, authorities told them to have their most precious possessions packed in cars and ready to go at a moment's notice as flames roared on the side of Highway 36, the main route into town.
Firefighters have been forced to work by hand to halt the fire inside the walls of the canyon that funnels into Mineral. Crews also bulldozed a trench to serve as a last line of defense between the fire and the town, and DiDio said it appeared firefighters would be able to keep the flames at bay.
The nearly 28,000-acre (11,331-hectare) blaze was 57 percent contained as of Thursday morning, and had destroyed 84 structures including 64 homes, fire officials said. They also listed 900 homes, 10 commercial properties and 30 outbuildings as still at risk of being consumed by the fire.
California Governor Jerry Brown on Wednesday declared a state of emergency in three northern California counties hit by wildfires, including the Ponderosa fire, freeing up funds to help fight the blazes.
Wildfires have consumed more 7 million acres (2.8 million hectares) across the country this year, the most acreage by this time of year since at least 1992, according to Charles Leonard, intelligence operations coordinator for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
The 2012 fire season has marked the most destructive blaze on record in Colorado, the biggest burn in New Mexico's history and the largest wildfire in Oregon in more than 150 years, figures from the National Interagency Fire Center and a report by NOAA's National Climatic Data Center show.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gorman and Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Vicki Allen)