More than 50,000 people have been evacuated in Northern California bushfires that have killed six, including two children and their great-grandmother, as fire crews battled on to quell flames that have destroyed entire neighbourhoods.
- 12,000 firefighters are battling 17 fires in California
- Two children, their great-grandmother and two men are confirmed dead
- Redding police say they are searching for 17 missing people
Officials said a second firefighter, who died fighting a huge blaze near Yosemite National Park, was among the six confirmed deaths.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said on Sunday (local time) that 12,000 firefighters were battling 17 significant fires in California.
She said the state had experienced considerably more fire activity this year than it did over the same period of time last year, with the worst part of the fire season still to come.
The Carr fire, the deadliest and most destructive of nearly 90 fires burning from Texas to Oregon, has charred 36,095 hectares of drought-parched vegetation since erupting last Monday.
Homes levelled by the Carr fire line the Lake Keswick Estates area of Redding. (AP: Noah Berger)
More than 5,012 structures were threatened by the fire, officials said. The flames destroyed 517 structures and damaged 135.
The weather on Sunday was expected to offer no relief for firefighters as it will hit more than 37.7 degrees Celsius with low humidity and gusty winds, the National Weather Service said.
An army of some 3,500 firefighting personnel and a squadron of 17 water-dropping helicopters had managed to carve buffer lines around just 5 per cent of the fire’s perimeter as of Sunday.
Fire officials said the erratic behaviour of the blaze, stoked by high winds and high temperatures, had complicated efforts to contain the conflagration.
US President Donald Trump on Saturday declared the fire an emergency, authorising federal funds for disaster relief efforts.
A firefighter hoses down flames as a wildfire advances onto a residential district. (AP: Marcio Jose Sanchez)
At the height of its fury on Thursday night, the fire was whipped into a storm-like frenzy by gale-force winds that drove flames across the Sacramento River into the western end of Redding, as thousands of residents fled for their lives in a chaotic evacuation.
The nearby town of Keswick, with a population of about 450, was reduced to cinders, and two firefighters were killed.
Redding police said authorities were still looking for seven people after finding nine others who had been reported missing.
‘Grandma did everything she could to save them’
Redding police Sergeant Todd Cogle confirmed that the three bodies discovered at a fire-ravaged home on the outskirts of Redding were two children and their great-grandmother.
Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said they had not yet been positively identified but were believed to be victims identified by relatives on Facebook and in news media reports as James Roberts, 5, his sister Emily Roberts, 4, and Melody Bledsoe, 70.
Ms Bledsoe’s granddaughter, Amanda Woodley, said on Facebook that the elderly woman desperately put a wet blanket over the children as their home burned.
Sherry Bledsoe and sister Carla cry after hearing news that Sherry’s children and grandmother were killed in a wildfire. (AP: Marcio Jose Sanchez)
“Grandma did everything she could to save them she was hovered over them both with a wet blanket,” Ms Woodley said in a Facebook post.
The children’s mother, Sherry Bledsoe, was quoted by the Sacramento Bee as saying: “My kids are deceased, that’s all I can say.”
According to the newspaper, Melody Bledsoe’s husband, Ed Bledsoe, wept as he recalled trying to get back to the family’s house after he had left to run an errand on Thursday, only to learn that the fire was closing in on them.
He told the newspaper that he spoke to the children on the phone as he raced in vain to return in time to save them.
A Go Fund Me effort launched overnight to help Ed Bledsoe had raised almost half its $30,000 goal by midday on Sunday.
It said the elderly couple had been caring for the great-grandchildren for years in their rental home.
So far this year, bushfires have scorched almost 1.7 million hectares across the country, less than last year but still more than the 1.5 million-hectare average for the same period over the past decade.
California has been particularly hard hit with several fierce blazes menacing large populated areas.
One of those, the Cranston fire, prompted a rare closure of much of Yosemite National Park last week, while another forced mass evacuations from the mountain resort community of Idyllwild, east of Los Angeles.