Wildfires raging near Whiskeytown, Calif. At least five people have been killed as the wildfires have spread. CALFIRE/REX/
SHUTTERSTOCK/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Wildfires spread across California Sunday, forcing officials to extend closure of the famed Yosemite Valley by another week and maintain evacuations for thousands of people further north around Redding where the death toll climbed to at least five.
By far the most destructive inferno so far has been the Carr Fire, which has exploded to more than 80,000 acres after igniting from a vehicle spark July 23 in the tinder dry brush outside Redding.
A wind-whipped firestorm Thursday sent residents of Redding and other smaller communities in its path fleeing for their lives, leaving at least 500 homes and other structures destroyed. A state fire official estimated the tally could be several hundred higher.
The huge blaze—already one of the top 20 in California history—has claimed at least five lives: Redding fire inspector Jeremy Stoke; 81-year-old Don Ray Smith, a civilian bulldozer operator; and 70-year-old Melody Bledsoe and her two great-grandchildren, James Roberts, 5, and Emily Roberts, 4. The family's bodies were discovered in their home in Redding that was overcome by fire last Thursday night, when the two men also died.
Ms. Bledsoe's husband, Ed Bledsoe, said his wife called him in a panic Thursday when he was out. "She said you need to come home right now, fire is right next to the house," Mr. Bledsoe said in an interview with Capital Public Radio. Mr. Bledsoe said he arrived too late. The three were reported missing until their bodies were found Saturday.
Over the weekend, the Carr Fire remained active but pushed mostly into rural areas south and north of Redding, a city 200 miles north of San Francisco. But much of Redding, with its 92,000 residents, remained on evacuation notice as fire officials warned that the flames—fueled by gusty, evening winds and relentless triple-digit heat—could shift back at any time.
"For Redding right now, it's a pretty hopeless feeling," said Easton Waterman, a 19-year-old college student who helped his family pack photographs and other precious possessions into a vehicle in case they have to leave. "No one knows what the fire is going to do, because it's big and unpredictable."
Firefighters in Redding, Calif., on Saturday. Over the weekend, the Carr Fire remained active but pushed mostly into rural areas
south and north of the city. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
On Saturday, President Donald Trump signed an emergency declaration request by Gov. Jerry Brown for federal assistance in the Redding-area firefighting efforts.
Hundreds of miles to the south, the 52,000-acre Ferguson Fire, which broke out July 13 outside Yosemite National Park continued to expand into a forest filled with millions of trees killed during California's recent five-year drought—its most severe on record. But firefighters made considerable progress encircling the blaze with containment lines, and officials began lifting some evacuation restrictions.
Still, National Park Service officials extended a closure that began July 25 for the Yosemite Valley to Aug. 3 from a planned reopening of Sunday. Although the valley wasn't directly threatened, they said the closure was needed because of heavy smoke from the nearby fire and to give firefighters more room to work.
The infernos were just two of 14 major wildfires that 10,000 firefighters are attacking across the Golden State, where a fire season that once began in late summer now extends for much of the year because of a combination of drought, warmer temperatures and accumulation of dead trees and other fuel, said Scott McLean, deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.
Mr. McLean said vegetation remains dry even after heavy rains and snow two years ago, which he added actually worsened the fire threat by adding more fuel. "What we need," he said Saturday "are several years of significant winter precipitation."