REDDING, Calif. – Fueled by an incendiary combination of scorching temperatures, dry air and unpredictable winds, the deadly Carr Fire doubled in size to 80,906 acres on Saturday- almost the size of the city of Philadelphia. The wildfire has forced thousands to flee, torched 500 buildings and killed five people, including three civilians and two firefighters.
Fire Inspector Jeremy Stoke was killed battling the northern California blaze, the Redding Fire Department announced. The other firefighter killed in the blaze was identified as 81-year-old Don Ray Smith, a privately hired bulldozer operator. Two children and their great-grandmother were killed after they were unable to escape the flames, according to the Associated Press.
The deaths underscored the hazards of a blaze that Cal Fire Chief Brett Gouvea called “extremely dangerous and moving with no regard to what’s in its path.”
The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning on Friday, saying fire-favorable conditions would exist until at least 8 a.m. Monday. The fire was so strong it was producing wind gusts of up to 50 mph and fire whirlwinds – tornado-like funnels of fire, ash and combustible gas. Smoke from the Carr Fire could be seen from space.
Authorities say the fire started on Monday, when a car having some sort of mechanical issue sparked a spreading blaze.
But that slow burn “became very active” later in the week as weather conditions tilted in the fire’s favor, Gouvea said.
On Thursday morning, it was burning across 20,000 acres, fire officials said. Within 24 hours, it had doubled in size, thwarting efforts to bring it under control. By Saturday morning, it had surpassed 80,000 acres and only 5 percent of the fire had been contained.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, D, has declared a state of emergency in Shasta County, where Redding sits about two hours south of Oregon, and in other counties where the state battled multiple raging fires.
As the Carr Fire’s flames beelined toward populated areas, emergency management officials scrambled to get thousands to safety – and to protect the property they left behind.
Before the blaze engulfed a home on Quartz Hill Road, Melody Bledsoe and her great-grandchildren Emily and James Roberts called loved ones in a panic
“She was screaming, “It’s getting closer,” and you could hear the sirens,” Donald Kewley, the boyfriend of Bledsoe’s granddaughter, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Then the phone went dead.”
When the Bledsoe family returned to the home, there was no sign of Melody Bledsoe or Emily and James Roberts, and Kewley said that the neighborhood had been “obliterated.”
Ed Bledsoe, Melody’s husband, searched evacuation shelters in vain. On Saturday, Bledsoe told the AP, that police had notified him that his wife and great-grandchildren were dead.
The weather was impeding firefighters’ efforts to make a dent in the blaze. Forecasts for the weekend said temperatures could approach 110 degrees on Saturday and Sunday, the Weather Service said. The humidity hovered around 5 to 10 percent, and winds gusted to 30 mph in some canyons that were on fire.
The result, warned the National Weather Service: “Dangerous and rapid irregular spreading of a large wildfire threatening life and property.”
For people in affected or threatened areas, the message was simple: Leave.
Residents described a sense of confusion as the fire continued to burn closer. Amber Bollman said she and her husband, Tim, received mandatory evacuation notices at their home near the Sacramento River – followed by notices saying they did not have to leave their home, but should be prepared to do so.
“We have about 10 firefighters who live in the neighborhood and they were saying as long as it didn’t jump the river, we’d be safe,” Bollman said. “We know [the fire personnel] were doing their best, but there was definitely a lack of communication about how rapidly it was coming.”
They packed up some of their things and headed east to her parent’s house in Shingletown. Tim Bollman and his 14-year-old son, Jack, went back for more. With Jack recording video, they followed fire personnel out of their neighborhood and saw flames surrounding the truck as they left, she said.
“They barely made it out,” she said.
On Friday morning, Bollman said they found out that their home had been lost.
“You get as much as you can, you get out with your life, but your home is so much a part of you that you can’t replace,” she said. “It’s material, but we have nothing. We have our lives and family and friends, but we just feel lost.”
Michelle Harrington, a teacher who lives near the Bollmans, said she and her husband packed things up in their car on Thursday afternoon. They were watching the evening news after 6 p.m. when her sister texted that flames were coming over the ridge.
“We opened the garage door and it was like a hurricane; the trees were bent over and garbage cans were blowing down the street,” Harrington said. “I thought we were going to die. I didn’t know if we were going to get out of there.”
They escaped to her parent’s house on the east side of Redding. Without knowing what happened to their home, Harrington said they have begun wondering what they will do next.
“We’re already thinking long term – where do you go? How long before we have a home again?’ she asked.
Complicating matters for California’s firefighters: They were battling multiple wildfires across the tinder-dry state.
More than 300 miles southeast of Redding, the Ferguson Fire forced Yosemite National Park officials to close the Yosemite Valley and Wawona parts of the park on July 25. The blaze has burned across nearly 50,000 acres since mid-July and was 29 percent contained as of Saturday morning, fire officials said.
A firefighter, Braden Varney, was killed on July 16 when the bulldozer he was using to create a fire break overturned and rolled down a ridge, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
Park officials announced that they would reopen all parts of the park on Aug. 3, but for many businesses that depend on tourists, the Ferguson Fire had already exacted a toll.
Mary Foster, owner of the Mariposa Hotel Inn, a historic six-room hotel that was built in the early 1900s, has had dozens of cancellations since the fire started on July 13. She estimates her business has lost over $6,000.
“It is the trickle down effect, the fire is affecting everyone in this town,” Foster said. One Swedish guest, for example, had been emailing Mary back and forth for the past few days and canceled his reservation Saturday morning after days of deliberation. This story is common for the many hotels in the area.
Mariposa tourism official Jonathan Farrington explained that local businesses are resilient and will continue to operate.
“Our mountain community is used to closures and restrictions in the park,” said Farrington, the executive director for the Yosemite/Mariposa County Tourism Bureau. “If you look at our history there are fewer years that don’t have an impact than do.”
In addition to the Carr Fire and the Ferguson Fire, California firefighters battled the Cranston Fire in Riverside County. That blaze stretched across 13,118 acres Saturday and was 17 percent contained, officials said.
People in threatened areas faced sometimes days of uncertainty, their lives upended by things completely out of their control, like firefighters’ ability to make a stand near a populated area or, in some cases, a shift in the wind.
Matt and Stephanie McClung, for example, spent all of Thursday fleeing the Carr Fire.
They were ordered to evacuate their home on Highland Circle at 4:30 a.m. and drove to Matt’s parents home, about six or seven miles away.
There they learned two things: Their house was gone, and Matt’s parents’ home was threatened. They’d have to leave again.
They went to Matt’s brother’s house, where they sat for an hour or so, before authorities told them they had to leave.
In the end, they spent the night in a conference room at Matt’s office. Their home for the foreseeable future is a hotel room.
Still, they’re trying to salvage one vestige of normalcy. Their daughter, Brilee, starts college at the University of California at Irvine on Tuesday. They’re still going to drive her up.
“We spent last week getting all her stuff in the garage ready to go,” Stephanie said. “We had a U-Haul reserved for Monday . . . All her college stuff is gone, all the things we’d been collecting for her over the past year is gone.”
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Williams reported from Redding and Ally Gravina from Yosemite; Wootson reported from Washington. The Washington Post’s Mark Berman and Jason Samenow in Washington contributed to this report, which has been updated since it was first published.