REDDING, Calif. — Nine people were reportedly missing as a monster wildfire in Northern California grew by two-thirds overnight after killing two firefighters, destroying hundreds of buildings and sending thousands of frantic residents racing from their homes.
Some 3,400 firefighters on the ground and in 17 helicopters battled the 80,900-acre (32,740-hectare) Carr Fire, which was just 5 percent contained early on Saturday as it ripped through Redding, a city of 90,000 people, in California’s scenic Shasta-Trinity area.
More than 38,000 residents in Redding and elsewhere in Shasta County fled their homes as the fire began to gain speed and intensity on Thursday, destroying 500 homes and businesses and leaving Keswick, a town of 450, in smoldering ruins, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said. [L5N1UO02P]
Another 5,000 buildings are threatened, Cal Fire said.
There are currently 89 large wildfires blazing across 14 U.S. states, mostly in the West, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. So far this year, wildfires have scorched almost 4.3 million acres (1.7 million hectares) across the United States, above the 3.7 million-acre (1.5 million-hectare) average for the same period over the last decade.
‘COULDN’T GET ANYTHING’
Some 1,100 people crowded into an evacuation center at Shasta College, outside Redding, on Saturday.
One of them, 57-year-old David Franceschine, said he had been on a camping trip when the fire erupted. He rushed back to his home to try to retrieve possessions but by the time he arrived, authorities had closed the road.
“I couldn’t get anything, could I, Scout?” he asked his white-and-brown-spotted dog. “At least I have you, Scout.”
Franceschine said 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.
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The fire, which started on Monday afternoon, has been fed by hot, dry weather and high winds. Temperatures were forecast to reach 109 Fahrenheit (42.8 Celsius) on Saturday, with winds of up to 8 miles per hour (13 km), according to the National Weather Service.
“The winds, high temperatures and dry vegetation still have the potential to fuel fire growth,” Cal Fire said in a morning advisory. “Fire spread has been active in all directions.”
A bulldozer operator and a member of the Redding Fire Department were killed in the blaze. Mercy Medical Center hospital has treated nine people for burns, including three firefighters, spokesman Mike Mangas said on Saturday.
Nine people, including a woman and her two great-great grandchildren, were missing, a CBS news affiliate in Sacramento reported, citing local police. The woman’s husband, Ed Bledsoe, told the station that he left them home to run an errand on Thursday night.
“He called and said ‘Grandpa you need to come, the fire is coming at our house now,’” Bledsoe said of a phone call he had with his great-great grandson while he was gone. “I can’t see how I can go on without them.”
The flames erupted into a firestorm on Thursday when they jumped across the Sacramento River and swept into the western side of Redding, about 150 miles (240 km) north of Sacramento.
Governor Jerry Brown requested emergency federal assistance to prevent an “imminent catastrophe” as Shasta County tried to find supplies and water for evacuated residents and care for horses and cattle rescued from ranches and farms.
Other major wildfires were raging about 110 miles (177 km) east of Los Angeles and near Yosemite National Park, which closed due to the blaze.
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(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Scott Malone and Matthew Lewis)