Two children and their great-grandmother are among six people to have died in wildfires in California. Two firefighters died on Thursday, 17 people are missing and tens of thousands have fled their homes as the Carr Fire rages out of control, destroying around 900 structures and threatening thousands of homes.
“My babies are dead,” said the children’s mother, Sherry Bledsoe, through tears at the Shasta County sheriff’s office.
Members of her family became trapped before they were able to evacuate. Ms. Bledsoe confirmed that her grandmother Melody, 70, and her two children Emily Roberts, five, and James Roberts, four, died in the fire.
Two firefighters – fire inspector Jeremy Stoke, and a bulldozer operator who has not yet been named, also died trying to contain the blaze. On Saturday, President Trump issued a federal emergency declaration for California.
The fire began last Monday after a car malfunctioned, and has scorched more than 95,000-acres of land – an area larger than the city of San Francisco – and is 17% contained. More than 3,400 firefighters have been deployed but the local fire department has warned that hot, dry weather is forecast for the rest of the week, and could make the blaze worse. About 37,000 terrified residents fled in miles-long traffic jams.
“We are seeing fire whirls – literally what can be described as a tornado,” California Department of forestry and fire protection (CalFire) chief Ken Pimlott told reporters. “This fire was whipped up into a whirlwind of activity by gale-force winds uprooting trees, moving vehicles, moving parts of roadways.”
Flames that turned the sky orange swept through the communities of Shasta and Keswick before jumping the Sacramento River on Thursday and reaching Redding, a city of about 92,000 people and the largest in the region. The fire was expanding so quickly that many fire crews turned their focus from the flames to getting people out alive.
“Really, we’re in a life-saving mode right now in Redding,” said Jonathan Cox, a battalion chief with Cal Fire. “We’re not fighting a fire. We’re trying to move people out of the path of it because it is now deadly, and it is now moving at speeds and in ways we have not seen before in this area.”
A second firefighter has died battling the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite National Park, officials said yesterday. The National Park Service has identified the firefighter as Brian Hughes, captain of the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshots. He was 33.
The Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park firefighter died Sunday morning after being struck by a tree on the east side of the fire, where Hughes and his crew “were operating in an area with a large amount of tree mortality,” park officials said. Hughes was treated at the scene, but he died before he could be taken to a hospital.
Hughes’ death marks the second firefighter fatality from the Ferguson Fire, which has charred 54,481 acres and is 30 percent contained. A day after the fire sparked, Braden Varney, a second-generation heavy fire equipment operator at Cal Fire, perished while fighting the fire.
Wildfires throughout the state have burned through tinder-dry brush and forest, forced thousands to evacuate homes and caused campers to pack up their tents at the height of summer. Gov. Jerry Brown declared states of emergency for the three largest fires, which will authorize the state to rally resources to local governments.
Experts say this has been the worst start to the fire season in 10 years – partly due to the 2012-2017 drought that killed off large amounts of vegetation. There are currently 90 active fires in the United States according to the National Interagency Fire Center.