REDDING, CALIFORNIA (REUTERS) - A 70-year-old woman and her two great-grandchildren died as she tried in vain to save them from a wildfire that raged through an area of northern California and engulfed their home, officials and family members said.
Two firefighters have also died and another 12 people are missing. More than 38,000 people remained under evacuation orders on Sunday in and around the city of Redding, about 160 miles (257 km) north of the state capital Sacramento.
The Carr Fire, which has destroyed more than 500 buildings, is the deadliest and most destructive of nearly 90 wildfires burning from Texas to Oregon. The Carr Fire has charred 89,194 acres (36,095 hectares) of drought-parched vegetation since erupting last Monday.
Redding Police Sergeant Todd Cogle confirmed that the three bodies discovered at a fire-ravaged home on the outskirts of Redding were two children and their great-grandmother.
The victims identified by relatives on Facebook and in news media reports were James Roberts, 5, his sister Emily, 4, and their great grandmother, Melody Bledsoe, 70.
Bledsoe's granddaughter, Amanda Woodley, said on Facebook the elderly woman desperately put a wet blanket over the children as their home burned.
"Grandma did everything she could to save them she was hovered over them both with a wet blanket," Woodley said in a Facebook post.
The children's mother, Sherry Bledsoe, was quoted by the Sacramento Bee as saying: "My kids are deceased. That's all I can say."
The weather on Sunday is expected to offer no relief for firefighters as it will hit more than 100 Fahrenheit (37.7 Celsius) with low humidity and gusty winds, the National Weather Service said.
"We are simply not getting a break," said Chris Anthony, a division chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
The blaze remained unpredictable, he said by telephone from Redding. "Under these conditions that we are seeing right now, it's not going to take much for the fire to have the extreme spread that we saw a couple of days ago."
The fire is no longer threatening communities around western Redding. But with power lines down and large trees uprooted in places, Anthony said significant work remained before residents could return to neighborhoods under evacuation orders.
An army of some 3,500 firefighters and a squadron of 17 water-dropping helicopters had carved buffer lines around just 5 percent of the fire's perimeter as of Sunday.
President Donald Trump on Saturday declared the fire an emergency, authorizing federal funds for disaster relief efforts.
At the height of its fury on Thursday night, the fire was whipped into a storm-like frenzy by gale-force winds that drove flames across the Sacramento River into the western end of Redding, as thousands of residents fled for their lives in a chaotic evacuation.
The nearby town of Keswick, with a population of about 450, was reduced to cinders, and two firefighters were killed.
"We have seen really extremely explosive fire behavior on this particular fire, but its not unique any more to what we are seeing on fires in California," Cal Fire's Anthony said. "That is kind of that new normal that we are dealing with in California."
Bledsoe's husband wept as he recalled trying to get back to the family's house after he had left to run an errand on Thursday, only to learn that the fire was closing in on them. Ed Bledsoe told the Sacramento Bee that he spoke to the children on the phone as he raced in vain to return in time to save them.
A Go Fund Me effort, launched overnight to help Ed Bledsoe, had raised almost half its US$30,000 goal by midday Sunday. It said the elderly couple had been caring for the great grandchildren for years in their rental home.
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 more 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. Cal Fire estimates more than 300 fires were burning across California as of Sunday morning.
One of the California fires 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.