California wildfires claim more lives; crews make progress
Thousands more fled their homes after wildfires surged near a small lake town in Northern California while a deadly blaze farther north slowed slightly as crews stretched to their limits across the state fight flames that have claimed the lives of two firefighters and six civilians.
Residents of the waterfront town Lakeport fled on Sunday after a major flare-up of two fires that combined across Mendocino and Lake counties destroyed at least four homes. Lakeport, home to about 5 000, is around 120 miles north of San Francisco.
More than 4 500 buildings were under threat, officials said. The two fires had blackened 122 square kilometres, with minimal containment.
About 160km northeast, officials near Redding struck a hopeful tone for the first time in days as a massive fire slowed following days of explosive growth.
"We're feeling a lot more optimistic today as we're starting to gain some ground rather than being in a defensive mode on this fire all the time," said Bret Gouvea, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's incident commander on the blaze around Redding, a city about 370km north of San Francisco.
County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said authorities found a sixth victim of the blaze at a home that was consumed by flames, though he declined to say where. The victim's identity was not released.
The sheriff's department is also investigating seven missing persons reports, Bosenko said. Redding police have an additional 11 reports of missing people, though many of them may simply not have checked in with friends or family, said Redding police Sgt Todd Cogle.
The so-called Carr Fire that affected Redding — a city of about 92 000 people — was ignited by a vehicle problem on Monday about 16km west of the city. On Thursday, it swept through the historic Gold Rush town of Shasta and nearby Keswick fuelled by gusty winds and dry vegetation. It then jumped the Sacramento River and took out subdivisions on the western edge of Redding.
The latest tally showed at least 657 homes destroyed and another 145 damaged, with the fire having consumed 386 square kilometres.
After days of fortifying the areas around Redding, fire crews were increasingly confident that the city would escape further damage. The fire had not grown inside the city limits since Saturday, Gouvea said.
The terrain surrounding nearby Whiskeytown Lake — usually filled in July with vacationers swimming in the clear water — was burned, burning or seemingly about to burn on Sunday.
A heavy haze hung low over the water, where some of the docked boats had melted. Firefighters and utility repair crews drove up and down the once-scenic highway, while California Department of Transportation water trucks sprayed roadsides in hopes of preventing potential wildfires from burning across the road, which can cost several million dollars to repair.
The fatalities included two firefighters and a woman and her two great-grandchildren.
"My babies are dead," Sherry Bledsoe said through tears after she and family members met on Saturday with sheriff's deputies.
Her two children, 5-year-old James Roberts and 4-year-old Emily Roberts, were stranded with their great-grandmother, Melody Bledsoe, 70, when flames swept through the family's rural property on Thursday on the outskirts of Redding.
The sixth victim, who was not identified, did not evacuate despite receiving an evacuation warning, Bosenko said.
It is the largest fire burning in California, threatening more than 5 000 structures. The flames were just 5% contained, though Gouvea said he expected that number to climb.
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.
The fire around Redding was among 17 significant blazes in the state on Sunday that had forced roughly 50 000 people from their homes, said Lynne Tolmachoff, a Cal Fire spokesperson.
About 12 000 firefighters were battling the fires, she said.