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Six more die in deadly California blaze

Updated July 30, 2018

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A firefighter walks along a containment line in front of an advancing wildfire. — AP
A firefighter walks along a containment line in front of an advancing wildfire. — AP

Thousands more fled their homes after wildfires surged near a small lake town in Northern California while a deadly blaze farther north slowed slightly as crews stretched to their limits across the state fight flames that have claimed the lives of both firefighters and civilians.

Residents of the waterfront town Lakeport fled on 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 122 square kilometres, with minimal containment.

About 160 kilometres northeast, officials near Redding 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, a city about 370 kilometres north of San Francisco.

County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said authorities found a sixth victim of the blaze at a home that was consumed by flames, though he declined to say where. The victim's identity was not released.

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.

The so-called Carr Fire that affected Redding a city of about 92,000 people was ignited by a vehicle problem on Monday about 16 kilometres 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 386 square kilometres.

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 six kilometres 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.

“My babies are dead,” Sherry Bledsoe said through tears after she and family members met on Saturday with sheriff's deputies.

Her two children, five-year-old James Roberts and four-year-old Emily Roberts, were stranded with their great-grandmother, Melody Bledsoe, 70, when flames swept through the family's rural property on Thursday on the outskirts of Redding.

The sixth victim, who was not identified, did not evacuate despite receiving an evacuation warning, Bosenko said.

It is the largest fire burning in California, threatening more than 5,000 structures. The flames were just five per cent 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.