Northern California wildfire

Reno Gazette-Journal-USA TODAY

Northern California Wildfire Claims More Lives; Crews Work To Slow Blaze

July 30, 2018 - 7:41 am
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REDDING, Calif. (WCBS 880/CBS News/AP) -- Firefighters on Monday said they were making progress in northern California, but six people are dead, and an area almost as big as Queens has already burned.

The so-called Carr Fire, about 150 miles north of Sacramento, grew to nearly 150 square miles Monday.

The fire has killed six people, including three from one family: 70-year-old Melody Bledsoe and her two great-grandchildren – 5-year-old James Roberts and 4-year-old Emily Roberts. They died when the Carr Fire, which is one of nine major wildfires burning across California, engulfed their home.

CBS News’ Carter Evans spoke with Bledsoe. Evans told WCBS 880’s Steve Scott and Alex Silverman that people took warnings very seriously, but they didn’t have enough notice when the fire “blew through here, really, like a blowtorch on Thursday.”

"I was only gone about 15 minutes when my wife called and said, 'You gotta get here. The fire's coming up the hill,'" husband Ed Bledsoe told CBS News correspondent Carter Evans.

Bledsoe said he had no idea his home was in danger when he left his wife with their two great-grandchildren, ages four and five, to run an errand.

"I was talking to my little grandson on the phone, he was saying, 'Grandpa, please, you gotta come and help us, the fire's at the back door,'" Bledsoe said, choking up. "I said, 'I'm right by you, honey, just hold on, grandpa's coming.'"

But he said the road was blocked with cars and the flames stopped him from returning on foot.

"I would've died right there with them. They're that important to me," Bledsoe said.

He told CBS Sacramento that his wife wrapped the children in wet blankets.

"She wet a bunch of blankets and put them down at the side of the bed. She got a wet blanket and put one on her. Got over the top of them, and they lay there until the fire took them," Bledsoe said.

ire officials near Redding expanded their evacuation orders Sunday. More than 38,000 people have been forced to flee their homes since Thursday. Officials say the fire is now threatening communities outside of Redding. A time lapse video showed the fire's intensity, creating winds strong enough to uproot trees. Bledsoe's home is one of more than 850 structures that have been destroyed.

"Did you get any sort of evacuation warning?" Evans asked.

"Nothing. Absolutely not a word," Bledsoe said, adding, "Nobody told us nothing. If I'd have any kind of warning, I'd have never ever left my family in that house."

Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said his department did tell people living in Redding to evacuate. They're investigating to see if the Bledsoe home got a warning call or a door-knock.

"In the areas both before the Bledsoe home and after the Bledsoe home, there was evidence that notifications were made for the door-to-door notifications," Bosenko said.

Officials said one of the people who was killed ignored evacuation orders. While some evacuees are now being allowed back into Redding, law enforcement is fighting another problem: looting. Three have been arrested, including one man police said was wearing camouflage and carrying a loaded gun.

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.

Meanwhile, residents of the waterfront town Lakeport fled 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 47 square miles, with minimal containment.

Back near Redding about 100 miles to the northeast, officials 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

Evans said while progress has been made with the Carr fire, there is a long way to go.

“It’s going to take some help with the weather, I think, and they did get that over the last couple of days. The winds haven’t been quite as strong. If the winds stay down a little bit, they’re going to make some headway for this fire, and they have,” Evans said. “You know, for most of the last week, it was 5 percent containment. We’re at 20 percent containment today, and it keeps rising – around 90,000 acres, though. So this still is a very big fire. It’s actually more than twice the size of the city of Redding.”

The Carr Fire that affected Redding — a city of about 92,000 people — was ignited by a vehicle problem on Monday about 10 miles west of the city. On Thursday, it swept through the historic Gold Rush town of Shasta and nearby Keswick fueled by gusty winds and dry vegetation. It then jumped the Sacramento River and took out subdivisions on the western edge of Redding.

Redding Police Chief Roger Moore kept up an around-the-clock work schedule despite learning that his home was one of those destroyed. He was finally able to shave on Saturday when his wife brought him a razor, he said.

Moore was helping evacuate people from his River Ridge neighborhood in western Redding when the flames became unbearable.

"I saw everything around it ignite, and I go, 'It's gone,'" Moore said.

At least one person was arrested on suspicion of stealing from evacuated homes and authorities were keeping watch for other potential looters, said Deputy Travis Ridenour, whose home also burned.

"Lost our house like so many others," Ridenour wrote on Facebook. "Still out watching over the ones still standing. No looting on my watch."

The latest tally showed at least 657 homes destroyed and another 145 damaged, with the fire having consumed 149 square miles.

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.

Some of the 38,000 people forced to evacuate said they were frustrated because they didn't know whether their homes were standing or were destroyed. Authorities had not reopened any evacuated neighborhoods where fires raged due to safety and ongoing investigations and urged people to be patient, saying they would soon let residents back.

Fed up, on Sunday morning Tim Bollman hiked 4 miles on trails up steep terrain to check on the Redding home he built for his wife and two sons 13 years ago. He found rubble.

"There's not even anything to pick up," he said. "It's completely gone."

Keswick, a mountain town of about 450 people, was reduced to an ashy moonscape of blackened trees and smoldering rubble.

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 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.

The Carr fire is the largest fire burning in California, threatening more than 5,000 structures. The flames were just 5 percent 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 spokeswoman.

About 12,000 firefighters were battling the fires, she said.

Meanwhile officials said a second firefighter died fighting a huge blaze to the south near Yosemite National Park. Brian Hughes, 33, was struck by a tree and killed while working as part of a crew removing brush and other fuel near the so-called Ferguson Fire's front lines, national parks officials said.

Originally from Hawaii, Hughes had been with California's Arrowhead Interagency Hotshots for four years and reached the rank of captain. Earlier this month, firefighter Braden Varney was killed when the bulldozer he was operating overturned while he was fighting the flames near the national park. At least seven other firefighters have been injured since that blaze broke out July 13.

Some evacuations were lifted but officials said Yosemite Valley, the heart of tourism in the park, will remain closed until Aug. 3.

A big fire continued to burn in the San Jacinto Mountains east of Los Angeles near Palm Springs, but officials lifted evacuation orders for several communities after reporting significant progress by firefighters.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. CBS News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.)