A massive wildfire in northern California has killed five people, prompted evacuation orders for about 37,000 and threatened thousands of homes with destruction.
Two firefighters, Jeremy Stoke and bulldozer operator Don Smith, were confirmed killed. Smith, 81, had been hired privately to help with the fight, California fire officials said. His body was found late on Thursday in Redding, the city worst hit.
Family members said three people who had been reported missing were dead. Sherry Bledsoe said her two children and her grandmother died near Redding. The dead were identified as 70-year-old Melody Bledsoe and her great-grandchildren, James Roberts, five, and Emily Roberts, four.
Family members had been desperately searching since flames leveled the home where they were stranded on Thursday. Melody Bledsoe’s husband was out getting supplies when the boy called him and said he needed to get home.
Ed Bledsoe told a television station he left home when the fire was about eight miles away. “He called and said, ‘Grandpa you need to come, the fire is coming at our house now,’” Bledsoe said, recounting the call.
Police earlier said they had been unable to locate 14 people, including the three who were later confirmed to be dead.
At least 500 structures were destroyed and officials expected that number to rise. A shelter reached capacity as fire authorities ordered more evacuations. Peter Griggs, a spokesman for Shasta College in Redding, said the school was housing 500 people. The gymnasium was filled with cots and American Red Cross volunteers were providing food, water and medical and mental health services.
Donald Trump approved an emergency declaration, ordering federal departments to assist state authorities.
The deadly fire, three hours north of San Francisco and near the Oregon border, was only around 5% contained having grown overnight by 35% to 127 square miles. Winds and other conditions threatened to send the flames to more populated areas, authorities reported.
“We’re not getting a break with the weather,” Chris Anthony, a spokesman for Cal Fire, the state agency responsible for fighting wildfires, told the Associated Press. “It just continues to be really hot, really dry and we continue to get those winds … This fire’s getting so big and there are so many different parts to it.”
Authorities said the fire would likely continue to burn into urban areas before firefighters are able to contain it. The fire originated with a vehicle on Monday, officials said, and expanded dramatically on Thursday night when it jumped a major river and pushed into Redding, the biggest city in the area with a population of around 92,000.
The Carr fire smoke plume was detected on satellite and was 30,000ft high by Friday afternoon, tall enough to cast a shadow, weather officials said.
— NWS Sacramento (@NWSSacramento) July 27, 2018
Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff told the Guardian on Saturday “tremendous heat” was expected to continue through the weekend. She also noted that the fire was so intense at one point it temporarily created its own weather system, acting like a tornado.
“It’s extremely dangerous,” she said, “and the potential for that to happen today is there.”
California’s governor, Jerry Brown, declared a state of emergency for Shasta county and in Riverside county in southern California, where another fire was tearing through mountain communities. Earlier in the week, fires partially shut down Yosemite national park.
In 2018, nearly 37,000 wildfires have burned more than 4.25 million acres, according to the AP. By Friday, nearly 290,000 acres had burned in California, making it the worst start to a fire season in a decade, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Last year, nearly 9,000 wildfires impacted 1.2 million acres in the state, with 46 fatalities, one of the deadliest fire seasons on record.
Redding police chief Roger Moore was among the residents who lost a home.
“I look up and see what I would describe as a fire tornado,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “It was 400 or 500 feet tall, 100 feet wide and it was just destroying everything in its path.”
Residents described harrowing journeys. Liz Williams told the AP she and her two children were stuck in traffic while attempting to flee the rapidly growing fire.
“I’ve never experienced something so terrifying in my life,” she said. “I didn’t know if the fire was just going to jump out behind a bush and grab me and suck me in.”
In 2017, the weather in California was the hottest in history. Temperatures have dried out vegetation, making it more flammable; the Golden State recently suffered a five-year drought.
“We are still in July, which is kind of unnerving for us here in California because we are seeing this kind of destruction happening already,” Tolmachoff said earlier in the week. “We still have at least three months – and generally the worst part of fire season – yet to come.”