Deadly California wildfire spreads as police report 17 people missing

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REDDING, Calif. (Reuters) – Police in Northern California searched on Saturday for 17 people listed as missing two days after a deadly wildfire reduced whole neighborhoods to ash and sent thousands fleeing for their lives, while firefighters struggled for a sixth day to corral the erratic flames.

More than 38,000 people in the city of Redding and adjacent Shasta County communities were under mandatory evacuation orders on Saturday, as 3,400 firefighters battled a blaze stoked by tinder-dry vegetation, high winds and triple-digit temperatures.

The Carr Fire, one of about a dozen major wildfires burning across California and nearly 90 overall from Texas to Oregon, had charred nearly 90,000 acres (36,400 hectares), an area about three times the size of San Francisco, since it erupted on Sunday.

Ground crews backed by a squadron of 17 water-dropping helicopters had managed to carve buffer lines around just 5 percent of the fire’s perimeter, leaving the blaze largely unchecked.

The unpredictable progression of the fire has proven especially confounding to firefighters, said Rick Young a spokesman for the fire management command, who called it “unprecedented fire behavior.”

Gale-force winds whipped flames into a frenzy on Thursday, creating fire tornadoes that uprooted trees and street signs as the blaze jumped the Sacramento River and roared into the western side of Redding, a city of 90,000 residents about 160 miles (258 km) north of Sacramento, the state capital.

A bulldozer operator working on the fire line and a Redding firefighter died in the conflagration. Officials said nine people have been treated for burns at a local hospital, three of them firefighters.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, has reported at least 500 homes in and around Redding were destroyed. The nearby community of Keswick, home to about 450 people, was reduced to smoldering ruins.

CalFire said at some 5,000 dwellings remained threatened.

On Saturday, law enforcement officials were trying to locate 17 people reported missing by loved ones or friends in the aftermath of Thursday’s firestorm, Redding Police Sergeant Todd Cogle said by telephone, adding that none on the list were presumed to have perished at this point.

A blackened landscape is shown from wildfire damage near Keswick, California, U.S., July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandria Sage

He stressed that the number of those unaccounted for had fluctuated during the past two days – from as many as 20 to as few as 12 – as some who were reported missing tuned up safe while others were added to the list.

“We don’t want to give the impression that all these people have suffered some kind of grave circumstances,” Cogle said. “We sent officers to some of these places (where they lived) and the houses were intact, so it’s more than likely those people just evacuated.”

Cogle, recounting that he saw 50 or 60 homes go up in flames the night of chaotic evacuations in Redding, said some areas remain too dangerous for search teams to enter because of downed electrical wires and ruptured gas lines.


So far this year, wildfires have scorched almost 4.3 million acres (1.7 million hectares) across the country, less than last year but still higher than the 3.7 million-acre (1.5 million-hectare) average for the same period over the last 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.

Some 1,100 people crowded into an evacuation center at Shasta College, outside Redding, one of several shelters that officials said reached full capacity on Saturday.

One of them, David Franceschine, 57, said he had been on a camping trip when the fire erupted. He tried to rush home but the road was closed by the time he arrived.

“I couldn’t get anything,” he said, adding that he assumes the fire destroyed all his possessions, including the urn containing the ashes of his son, who died four years ago.

“That’s what bothers me the most,” Franceschine said.

The missing included a woman and her two great-great grandchildren, the CBS News affiliate in Sacramento reported, citing local police.

Slideshow (3 Images)

President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency in the fire-stricken area, authorizing federal funds and staff for the disaster response.

Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Scott Malone in Boston and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Sandra Maler

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