California wildfires rage unchecked
38,000 people evacuated by deadly blaze officials say is unlikely to be contained before mid-August
REDDING, Calif. — Fire crews facing several weather uncertainties Sunday struggled to corral a deadly blaze in Northern California that has left thousands of dazed evacuees reeling as they try to take care of themselves, their families and even pets.
Firefighters endured hot temperatures and remained wary of the possibility of gusty winds, said Anthony Romero, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“Right now it’s going everywhere. We still have a lot of open line,” he said.
He added, “Any event could bring this back up again.”
The National Weather Service on Sunday forecast hot and dry conditions in the area, with wind gusts expected late in the afternoon.
Anna Noland, 49, was evacuated twice in three days before learning through video footage Saturday that the house she last saw under dark and windy skies had burned.
She planned to stay at a shelter at Simpson College in Redding while she searches for another place to live.
“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 is among the 38,000 people evacuated after the so-called Carr Fire roared into the outskirts of Redding in Shasta County, leaving five people dead, including two firefighters, a woman and her two great-grandchildren.
“My babies are dead,” Sherry Bledsoe said through tears after she and family members met with Shasta County sheriff ’s deputies Saturday.
A vehicle problem ignited the fire Monday, but it wasn’t until Thursday that the fire exploded and raced into communities west of Redding before entering city limits.
Some 12,000 firefighters are working 24-hour shifts battling the deadly wildfires.
The exhausted and hungry crews are becoming resigned to fire seasons that start earlier and burn longer and unleash increasingly unpredictable blazes. For many of the firefighters slamming down 9,000-calorie meals between shifts, the non-stop effort has become routine.
Crews made progress on the Carr Fire near Redding, the largest city in the region, about 370 kilometres north of San Francisco. But it was still threatening thousands of homes and wasn’t expected to be fully contained until mid-August at the earliest.
In his 19 years on the job, Cal Fire Capt. Chris Anthony said the most significant change is that hotter, drier conditions now mean that firefighters are trained to take a “tactical pause” to reconsider before charging in against the flames.
“Fire has become a lot more unpredictable,” he said. “In the past we could plan, but these days a fire can take a sudden and deadly turn.”
That’s what happened Thursday, when the fire near Redding pivoted and exploded in size, taking down hundreds of homes and killing five people, two of them firefighters. Another firefighter was killed earlier in the month battling a giant fire near Yosemite National Park.
On Saturday, it pushed southwest of Redding toward the tiny communities of Ono, Igo and Gas Point, where scorching heat, winds and bone-dry conditions complicated firefighting efforts.
The blaze, which grew slightly Sunday to 360 square kilometres, is the largest fire burning in California. More than 5,000 structures were threatened, and the fire was just five per cent contained.
The latest tally showed 517 destroyed structures and another 135 damaged, Romero said. A count by The Associated Press found at least 300 of those structures were homes.
The firefighters killed in the blaze included Don Ray Smith, 81, of Pollock Pines, a bulldozer operator who was helping clear vegetation in the path of the wildfire. Redding fire Inspector Jeremy Stoke was also killed, but details of his death were not released.
Sherry Bledsoe’s two children, James Roberts, 5, and Emily Roberts, 4, were stranded with their great-grandmother Melody Bledsoe, 70, when walls of flames swept through the family’s rural property Thursday on the outskirts of Redding.
The three were among more than a dozen people reported missing after the furious winddriven blaze took residents by surprise and levelled several neighbourhoods. Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said he expects to find several of those people alive and just out of touch with loved ones. Officers have gone to homes of several people reported missing and found cars gone — a strong indication they fled.
A firefighter walks along a containment line while battling a wildfire on Saturday in Redding, Calif. The fire has forced the evacuation of 38,000 people and claimed at least five lives, including two firefighters.