REDDING, California (REUTERS) – Seventeen people were missing on Saturday (July 28) as a monster wildfire in Northern California spread after killing two firefighters, destroying hundreds of buildings and sending tens of thousands of frantic residents fleeing from their homes.
More than 38,000 people in Redding and elsewhere in Shasta County have been ordered to leave their homes from the 32,740 hectare Carr Fire, which has destroyed at least 500 homes and businesses.
Officials warned further evacuation orders were possible.
Some 3,400 firefighters on the ground and in 17 helicopters were battling the fire, which was just 5 per cent contained as it ripped through Redding, a city of 90,000 people, in California’s scenic Shasta-Trinity area.
It has left Keswick, a town of 450, in smoldering ruins, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.
Another 5,000 buildings are threatened, Cal Fire said.
Law enforcement officials are currently trying to locate 17 people reported missing, but noted that the number of missing has fluctuated in recent days as new people are reported missing and others located, Redding Police Sergeant Todd Cogle said by telephone.
“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.”
There are currently 89 large wildfires blazing across 14 US states, mostly in the West, according to the National Interagency Fire Centre.
So far this year, wildfires have scorched almost 1.7 million hectares across the United States, above the 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, one of several shelters that officials said reached full capacity 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.
The fire, which started on Monday afternoon, has been fed by hot, dry weather and high winds. Temperatures were forecast to reach 42.8 deg C on Saturday, with winds of up to 13kmh, according to the National Weather Service.
A bulldozer operator as well as 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.
Officials said police were responding to looting incidents in evacuated neighborhoods.
The missing included a woman and her two great-great grandchildren, the CBS news affiliate in Sacramento reported, citing local police. The woman’s husband, Ed Bledsoe, told the station that he left them at home to run an errand on Thursday night and then got a call from his great-great grandson.
“He called and said, ‘Grandpa you need to come, the fire is coming at our house now,’” Bledsoe said. “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 240km north of Sacramento.
President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency in the fire-hit area, a move that authorizes federal funds and staff to help in disaster response.
Other major wildfires were raging about 177km east of Los Angeles and near Yosemite National Park, which closed due to the blaze.