Fire officials said a northern California wildfire that has killed five people and destroyed more than 500 buildings did not grow dramatically overnight into Sunday, though crews were still struggling to contain it.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Anthony Romero said the fire in the Redding area grew by roughly nine square miles to 139 square miles. It remained 5% contained.
Romero said there were still many uncertainties that could cause the fire to explode. Crews have been dealing with gusty winds and hot temperatures. The fire has destroyed 517 buildings and damaged another 135. More than 5,000 structures are threatened and tens of thousands of people are under evacuation orders.
A vehicle problem ignited the fire on Monday but it was not until Thursday that it exploded and raced into communities west of Redding before entering city limits. On Saturday, it pushed south-west towards the tiny communities of Ono, Igo and Gas Point. Scorching heat, winds and bone-dry conditions complicated firefighting efforts.
Two firefighters have been killed. They were Don Ray Smith, 81, of Pollock Pines, a bulldozer operator who was helping clear vegetation in the path of the wildfire, and the Redding fire inspector Jeremy Stoke. Details of his death were not released.
Bledsoe’s two children, James Roberts, five, and Emily Roberts, four, were stranded with their great grandmother Melody Bledsoe, 70, when walls of flames swept through the family’s rural property on the outskirts of Redding. The three were among more than a dozen people reported missing after the wind-driven blaze took residents by surprise and leveled several neighborhoods.
Shasta county sheriff Tom Bosenko said he expected to find several people were just out of touch with loved ones. Officers have gone to homes of several reported missing and found cars gone – a strong indication they fled.
Dazed evacuees were struggling to take care of themselves and their pets. Anna Noland, 49, was evacuated twice in three days before learning through video footage that the house she last saw under dark and windy skies had burned. She expected to spend Saturday night at a shelter at Simpson College in Redding.
“I think I’m still in shock,” Noland said. “It’s just unbelievable knowing you don’t have a house to go back to.”
Noland was among 38,000 people evacuated after the fire roared into the outskirts of Redding. Bonnie and Jerry Kieffaber grabbed most of their medications when they left home on Thursday but they forgot his insulin. Days later, police won’t let them back. Bonnie Kieffaber, 69, said being away from home was expensive.
“All of our food was there, and now we’re draining our checking account trying to keep gas in the car and buy food too,” she said, grabbing a hot meal at a Red Cross shelter. “It’s exhausting. The heat and the stress of it all, and praying for everybody and all of our friends.”
About 100 miles south-west, two blazes prompted mandatory evacuations in Mendocino county. The fires, burning 30 miles apart, started on Friday and were threatening more than 350 buildings. Authorities also issued evacuation orders in Napa county, famous for its wine, when several structures caught fire, the Napa Valley Register reported. The blaze had blackened 150 acres and was at 10% containment.
Throughout the state, Cal Fire officials said more than 10,000 firefighters were on the line, making progress on 14 large wildfires. Big fires continued to burn outside Yosemite national park and in the San Jacinto mountains east of Los Angeles, near Palm Springs. Those fires had burned nearly 100 sq miles. Yosemite valley remained closed to visitors and will not reopen until Friday.
In Shasta county, Matt Smith, a Forest Service pilot with 13 years’ experience, said he used hoses to save his house in the well-kept neighborhood of Lake Redding Estates. Burned and twisted bicycle frames, refrigerators and piles of rubble were still smoking on Saturday. Smith said he arrived home on Thursday as evacuees were racing out.
“Save it for your family, save it for your family,” he said he reminded himself during two adrenalin-filled hours. He said he always kept an escape route in mind – possibly his neighbor’s pool.
On Saturday, he had a burn on his hand from grabbing his propane tank and wrestling it away from the house. His nose and ear also had burns.
“The good news is that our house is here. The bad news is that our neighborhood is devastated,” he said.