REDDING, Calif. – A wildfire roaring out of control Sunday in Northern California has claimed at least six lives, left seven people missing, burned hundreds of homes and driven more than 30,000 stunned, mourning residents from their communities.
More than 3,000 firefighters were battling the blaze, which had grown to 140 square miles. High temperatures and heavy winds conspired to complicate the effort backed by more than 300 fire engines and 17 helicopters.
The fire remained only 5 percent contained Sunday despite “aggressive” efforts to control the blaze, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“Extreme fire conditions continue to challenge firefighters,” Cal Fire said in a statement. “Erratic winds and hot dry conditions resulted in greater growth and increased fire behavior during night operations.”
The sheriff’s department is investigating seven missing persons reports, said County Sheriff Tom Bosenko. 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 wildfire was among more than a dozen in California requiring more than 10,000 firefighters and chasing 50,000 people from their homes.
Redding sits on the Sacramento River about 170 miles north of the state capital and 120 miles south of the Oregon border. Some neighborhoods here were forced to evacuate, along with parts of the nearby Shasta County communities including Happy Valley, Igo and Ono. As the blaze roared west, residents of the Trinity County town of Lewiston also were ordered to evacuate.
Wayne and Laura Rathe say they were fully aware of the wildfire danger that comes with living “in the woods” outside Redding. They took all the defensive measures they could and evacuated Thursday before the order.
On Saturday, they learned their home of almost 20 years was gone.
“We did everything right,” Laura Rathe said. “It’s crazy, it’s unbelievable, it’s a nightmare.”
The fire was ignited Monday when a vehicle malfunctioned near the Carr Powerhouse in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, Cal Fire says. More than a dozen people have been reported missing, but authorities said most probably were out of touch with friends and neighbors.
A California sheriff says a sixth person has died in a raging wildfire that has destroyed more than 500 buildings. Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said Sunday that the remains were found within the boundary of the Carr Fire near Redding. (July 29) AP
The confirmed fatalities included James Roberts, 5, and his sister, Emily, 4, and their great-grandmother Melody Bledsoe, 74.
“I’m just devastated,” said Eddy Bledsoe, Melody’s husband. “All she lived for were them kids and me.”
Bulldozer operator Don Ray Smith, 81, was killed while clearing debris for the firefighting effort when his position was overrun by the flames. Jeremy Stoke, a 14-year firefighter, also was among the victims.
“With heavy hearts we announce the passing of Fire Inspector Jeremy Stoke,” the Redding Fire Department said in a statement. “Jeremy died while battling the Carr Fire. We ask for your thoughts and prayers for his family and the RFD as we process this tragic loss.”
The sixth fire fatality wasn’t immediately identified.
Among the other blazes across the state is the Ferguson Fire, which has burned more than 80 square miles near Yosemite National Park. Parts of the park are closed until at least week’s end, and park officials say visitors elsewhere should expect “poor air quality and visibility.”
Bendu and Sandhu reported from Redding; Bacon from McLean, Virginia. Contributing: Christal Hayes.