Two die in Cal­i­for­nia flames

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - WORLD -

A WILD­FIRE that roared with lit­tle warn­ing into a North­ern Cal­i­for­nia city claimed two lives as thou­sands of peo­ple scram­bled to es­cape be­fore the walls of flames de­scended from forested hills onto their neigh­bour­hoods.

Res­i­dents who gath­ered their be­long­ings in haste de­scribed a chaotic and con­gested get­away as the em­bers blew up to half a kilo­me­tre ahead of flames and the fire leaped across the wide Sacra­mento River and torched sub­di­vi­sions in Red­ding, a city of 92 000 about 160km south of the Ore­gon bor­der.

“I’ve never ex­pe­ri­enced some­thing so ter­ri­fy­ing in my life,” said Liz Wil­liams, who loaded up two kids in her car and then found her­self locked in bumper-to-bumper traf­fic with neigh­bours try­ing to re­treat from Lake Red­ding Es­tates. She even­tu­ally jumped the curb onto the side­walk and “booked it.”

“I didn’t know if the fire was just go­ing to jump out be­hind a bush and grab me and suck me in,” Wil­liams said. “I wanted out of here.”

The blaze lev­elled at least 125 homes, leav­ing neigh­bour­hoods smoul­der­ing and 37 000 peo­ple un­der evac­u­a­tion or­ders. Red­ding po­lice chief Roger Moore was among those who lost their homes, the Los An­ge­les Times re­ported.

The flames moved so fast that fire­fight­ers had to drop ef­forts to bat­tle the blaze at one point to help peo­ple es­cape.

The fire, which cre­ated at least two flam­ing tor­na­dos that top­pled trees, shook fire­fight­ing equip­ment and bust truck win­dows, took “down ev­ery­thing in its path,” said Scott McLean, a spokesper­son for Cal Fire, the state agency re­spon­si­ble for fight­ing wild­fires.

Fire of­fi­cials warned that the blaze would prob­a­bly burn deeper into ur­ban ar­eas be­fore there was any hope of con­tain­ing it, though it ei­ther changed di­rec­tion or was stopped be­fore it could burn into the core of the city.

Red­ding is at the north­ern scenic end of the agri­cul­tural Cen­tral Val­ley. Rivers chan­nel abun­dant win­ter rain­fall into mas­sive reser­voirs used for boat­ing and fish­ing. The area’s stun­ning moun­tains are a play­ground for out­door en­thu­si­asts.

Light­ning and even a lawn mower have sparked dev­as­tat­ing fires in the forests that ring the peaks and lakes. The blaze that broke out on Mon­day was caused by a me­chan­i­cal is­sue in­volv­ing a ve­hi­cle, of­fi­cials said.

The fire rapidly ex­panded on Thurs­day when er­ratic flames swept through the his­toric Gold Rush town of Shasta and nearby Keswick, then cast the Sacra­mento River in an orange glow as they jumped the banks into Red­ding.

Steve Hob­son, a former fire­fighter, said on Fri­day flames on the dis­tant hill­side looked like so­lar flares on the sun.

He had planned to stay be­hind to save his house on Lake Red­ding Drive. But the heat burned his skin, and smoke made it hard to breathe. He could feel the fire suck­ing the air from around him, whip­ping up swirling em­bers in a “fire tor­nado”.

He had to drive through walls of flam­ing em­bers on both sides of the street when he fi­nally fled. A tree fell right in front of him.

“I didn’t know if I’d make it so I just got in the mid­dle of the street, went down the mid­dle of the street through the em­bers and the smoke and made it past,” Hob­son said.

When he re­turned Fri­day, his fence had burned along with a back­yard shed and ev­ery­thing in­side it – Christ­mas or­na­ments, china and old tele­vi­sions.

But his house made it through the har­row­ing night.

Oth­ers homes in the hap­haz­ard path of de­struc­tion were not so lucky. Where some houses stood un­scathed, sin­gle walls or chim­neys were all that re­mained of oth­ers. Burned-out skele­tons of pickup trucks and VW bee­tles sat on tire­less rims in the ash.

An As­so­ci­ated Press sur­vey found 66 homes de­stroyed in Hob­son’s neigh­bor­hood and another 60 gone in Keswick Lake Es­tates. About 5 000 other build­ings were threat­ened, fire of­fi­cials said.

Red­ding fire in­spec­tor Jeremy Stoke was killed in the blaze, though no de­tails were of­fered on what hap­pened to him. Another fire­fighter hired to try to con­tain the flames with a bull­dozer was killed on Thurs­day, au­thor­i­ties said.

For a while, fire crews in Red­ding aban­doned hope of con­tain­ing the flames and fo­cused on sav­ing lives.

“We’re not fight­ing a fire,” said Jonathan Cox, bat­tal­ion chief with Cal Fire.

“We’re try­ing to move peo­ple out of its path be­cause it is now deadly and mov­ing at speeds and in ways we have not seen in this area.”

Late on Thurs­day, crews found the body of the bull­dozer op­er­a­tor who had been hired pri­vately to clear veg­e­ta­tion in the blaze’s path. He was the sec­ond bull­dozer op­er­a­tor killed in a Cal­i­for­nia blaze in less than two weeks.

Else­where in the state, large fires con­tin­ued to burn out­side Yosemite Na­tional Park and in the San Jac­into Moun­tains east of Los An­ge­les near Palm Springs. – AP/ANA

PIC­TURE: AP/AFRICAN NEWS AGENCY (ANA)

At least 125 homes have been lev­elled in a wild­fire that broke out in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

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