REDDING, Calif. — A deadly Northern California wildfire that destroyed hundreds of homes in and around the city of Redding expanded into more rural areas Saturday where scorching heat, winds and bone-dry conditions complicated firefighting efforts.
Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said 14 people had been reported missing after the furious wind-driven blaze took residents by surprise and leveled several neighborhoods, though he added that the homes of most of those unaccounted for were still standing.
Among the missing were two children and their great-grandmother who were stranded at a rural home when the fire blew up Thursday night, jumped the wide Sacramento River into Redding and leveled several neighborhoods.
Family members were desperately seeking any information on the whereabouts of Melody Bledsoe, 70, and her two great-grandchildren, James Roberts, 5, and Emily Roberts, 4, though they were prepared for a worst-case scenario after a family member visited what remained of the house where they were last seen.
“It looked like a war zone,” said Jason Decker, who viewed the smoldering remains. “I couldn’t smell death in the air, which is good.”
The fire that was ignited Monday in forested hills grew overnight to 127 square miles (328 square kilometers). It pushed southwest of Redding, about 250 miles (402 kilometers) north of San Francisco and the largest city in the region with about 92,000 residents, toward tiny communities of Ono, Igo and Gas Point.
It’s now the largest of more than 20 fires burning in California. The winds that aided firefighters in keeping the flames from more populated areas were propelling it forward at a frightening rate.
“We’re not getting a break with the weather,” said Chris Anthony, a spokesman for Cal Fire, the state agency responsible for fighting wildfires. “It just continues to be really hot, really dry and we continue to get those winds. … This fire’s getting so big and there are so many different parts to it.”
Two firefighters were killed and the latest tally of 500 destroyed structures was sure to rise. A count by The Associated Press found more than 300 homes destroyed.
About 37,000 people are under evacuation orders, 5,000 homes are threatened and the fire was just 5 percent contained.
Meanwhile, about 120 miles (200 kilometers) southwest of Redding, two blazes prompted mandatory evacuations in Mendocino County. The two fires, burning 30 miles (50 kilometers) apart, started Friday and are threatening more than 350 buildings. The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office ordered evacuations for people living in an area of Ukiah north of Highway 175. Residents in neighboring Benmore Valley were also told to leave Saturday.
Cal Fire officials said more than 10,000 firefighters were on the line, making progress on 14 large wildfires across California.
President Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration for California on Saturday, allowing counties affected by wildfires to receive federal assistance. In a statement, the White House said the declaration will open up the availability of necessary equipment and resources from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Huge fires continued to burn outside Yosemite National Park and in the San Jacinto Mountains east of Los Angeles near Palm Springs. As of Saturday morning, these fires have burned nearly 160,000 acres (64,700 hectares) and destroyed over 500 structures. Yosemite Valley remains closed to visitors and won’t reopen until Friday.
Nationally, 89 active large fires have consumed nearly 930,000 acres (376,000 hectares) in 14 states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. So far this year, nearly 37,000 wildfires have burned more than 4.25 million acres (1.7 million hectares).
The Carr Fire destroyed nearly all of Keswick, a hamlet just west of Redding. One of the homes lost belonged to Shyla and Jason Campbell.
Jason, a firefighter, was six hours away from his home and family, battling the fire near Yosemite, when the Carr Fire moved in with devastating speed.
“It’s huge flames, it’s coming up the hill, and everyone’s out and we’re watching it, then it goes down, and everyone’s like, ‘Oh it’s going out,’ ” said Shyla, 32. “And I’m like, ‘No, it’s going down the mountain and it’s going to come back up the next ridge.’ ”
She was right.
The family spent the night at a hotel. When Jason Campbell returned on Friday, he found their home of five years was gone, along with an RV and a boat.
“It’s tough,” Shyla Campbell said Friday as she sheltered in the city of Shasta Lake. “I just have to figure out where we’re going to stay. We’re just trying to stay away from the fire.”
Redding police chief Roger Moore was among those who lost homes.
Greg and Terri Hill evacuated their Redding home of 18 years Thursday night with little more than their medications, photo albums, clothes and firearms, assuming they’d be back home in a few days.
When they returned Friday, virtually nothing was left but fine particles of ash. It was so hot, they couldn’t walk through it to see if anything survived.
“It’s pretty emotional,” Terri Hill said. “I know it’s just stuff. A lot of memories. But we’ll make new memories and get new stuff. Everybody’s safe.”