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United States

California blaze turns deadly after fire ‘tornado’ kills two

Officials warned locals in fire-threatened areas that they need to ‘evacuate, evacuate, evacuate’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 July, 2018, 6:43pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 July, 2018, 9:57pm

Nine people were reportedly missing as a monster bush fire in northern California burned unchecked on Saturday after it killed two firefighters, destroyed hundreds of structures and sent thousands of frantic residents racing from their homes.

Some 3,400 firefighters on the ground and in helicopters and aeroplanes battled the 19,500 hectare (48,300-acre) Carr Fire 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 structures and leaving Keswick, a town of 450, in smouldering ruins, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) said.

The fire, which was just 3 per cent contained after igniting six days ago, has been fed by high temperatures and low humidity, which were expected to continue for at least the next week, said CalFire Director Ken Pimlott.

“This fire is a long way from done,” he said. “This fire was whipped up into a whirlwind of activity, uprooting trees, moving vehicles, moving parts of roadways.”

Such highly erratic, storm-like wildfires have grown commonplace in the state, Pimlott said.

“These are extreme conditions, this is how fires are in California,” he said. “We need to take heed and evacuate, evacuate, evacuate.”

Firefighters and police “went into life-safety mode”, hustling door-to-door to usher civilians out of harm’s way, said CalFire spokesman Scott McLean.

A bulldozer operator and a member of the Redding Fire Department were killed in the blaze. A Redding hospital said it had treated eight people, including three firefighters.

Nine people, including a woman and her two great-great grandchildren, were missing, a local Sacramento television station 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.

“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 cannot see how I can go on without them.”

The flames erupted into a firestorm on Thursday when it jumped across the Sacramento River and swept into the western side of Redding, about 240km (150 miles) north of Sacramento, before gale-force winds during the night created a fire “tornado”, officials said.

Firefighters and police were hustling door-to-door to usher civilians out of harm’s way, they said.

California has had its worst start to the fire season in a decade, with more than 100,000 hectares burnt up until Friday morning, according to National Interagency Fire Centre (NIFC) data.

Governor Jerry Brown requested emergency federal help 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.

Rob Wright, 61, and his wife stayed to fight off flames with a high-powered water hosepipe.

“We were fortunate enough that the wind changed hours ago, and it is pushing the fire back,” said Wright on Friday. “We are just waiting it out … crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.”

Video and images posted on social media showed flames engulfing structures, as an orange glow lit up the sky.

Bush fires have blackened an estimated 1.68 million hectares (4.15 million acres) in the US so far this year. That was well above average for the same period over the past 10 years but down from 2.13 million hectares (5.27 million acres) in the first seven months of 2017, NIFC reported.