REDDING, Calif. — An explosive wildfire tore through two small Northern California communities Thursday before reaching the city of Redding, killing a bulldozer operator on the fire lines, burning at least three firefighters, destroying dozens of homes and forcing thousands of terrified residents to flee.
Scott McLean, a CalFire spokesman for the crews battling the blaze, said flames swept through the communities of Shasta and Keswick before jumping the Sacramento River and reaching Redding, a city of about 92,000 people – the largest in the region.
The Carr Fire is “taking down everything in its path,” he said. “It’s just a wall of flames. It’s nonstop.”
Late Thursday, crews found the body of a bulldozer operator who was hired privately to clear vegetation in the blaze’s path, McLean said.
The fire burned over the operator and his equipment, making him the second bulldozer operator killed in a California blaze in less than two weeks.
A CBS Sacramento reporter tweeted video of the devastation as it happened:
At least three firefighters and an unknown number of civilians had burns, but the extent of their injuries wasn’t immediately known, McLean said.
“It’s just chaotic. It’s wild,” he said. “There’s a lot of fire, a lot of structures burning.”
Firefighters tried in vain to build containment around the blaze Thursday but flames kept jumping their lines, he said.
“It’s just a heck of a fight,” he said. “They’re doing what they can do and they get pushed out in a lot of cases. We’re fighting the fight right now.”
CalFire Unified Incident Commander Chief Brett Gouvea told reporters, “The fire community is extremely heartbroken for this loss. … As we mourn the loss, we also battle a fire that is moving extremely quickly and erratically into western Redding. … We ask everyone to heed evacuation orders and leave promptly. This fire is extremely dangerous and moving with no regard for what’s in its path.”
Residents of western Redding who hadn’t been under evacuation orders were caught off guard and had to flee with little notice, causing miles-long traffic jams as flames turned the skies orange. “When it hit, people were really scrambling. There was not much of a warning,” McLean said.
@Jenerator72 tweeted, “Out town is burning. Everyone evacuating”:
Many firefighters turned their focus from the flames to getting people out alive.
“Really we’re in a life-saving mode right now in Redding,” said Jonathan Cox, battalion chief with Cal Fire. “We’re not fighting a fire. We’re trying to move people out of the path of it because it is now deadly and it is now moving at speeds and in ways we have not seen before in this area.”
Some residents drove to hotels or the homes of family members in safer parts of California, while other evacuees poured into a shelter just outside of town.
Drives that normally take 20 minutes were reaching two-and-a-half hours long as residents fled to safety, McLean said.
CBS Sacramento called it a “mass exodus.”
CBS Chico, California affiliate KHSL-TV reports KRCR-TV in Redding evacuated its newsroom.
A reporter with KRCR choked up as she reported live updates about the fire before the station had to go off the air later. Two news anchors told viewers that the building was being evacuated and urged residents to “be safe.”
Journalists at the Record Searchlight newspaper tweeted about continuing to report on the fire without electricity in their newsroom, and a reporter at KHSL-TV wrote on Twitter that the station’s Redding reporters were “running home to gather their things.”
Mike Mangas, a spokesman at Mercy Medical Center, said the hospital was evacuating five babies in its neonatal intensive care unit, which cares for premature newborns, and taking them to medical facilities outside of the area.
He said the hospital was preparing high-risk patients to be evacuated but there were no immediate plans to do so.
He said several burn patients were admitted to the emergency room but that most were being treated and released.
The 45-square-mile Carr Fire began Monday and tripled in size overnight Thursday amid scorching temperatures, low humidity and windy conditions.
Earlier in the day, with flames exploding around Whiskeytown Lake, an effort to save boats at a marina by untying them from moorings and pushing them to safety, wasn’t swift enough to spare them all.
Dozens of charred, twisted and melted boats were among the losses at Oak Bottom Marina.
“The only buildings left standing … right now are the fire station and a couple of restrooms,” said Fire Chief Mike Hebrard, of CalFire. “The boat docks down there – all the way out in the water – 30 to 40 boats caught fire when the fire laid down on top of them last night and burned those up.”
In the historic Gold Rush-era town of Shasta, state parks employees worked through the early morning to rescue artifacts from a museum as the blaze advanced.
Wildfires throughout the state have burned through tinder-dry brush and forest, forced thousands to evacuate homes and forced campers to pack up their tents at the height of summer. Gov. Jerry Brown declared states of emergency for the three largest fires, which will authorize the state to rally resources to local governments.
The wildfires have dispatched firefighters to all corners of the state amid an oppressive heat wave.
A huge forest fire. About 100 homes were still under threat in the San Francisco Bay community of Clayton, although firefighters had stopped the progress of a small fire there after one house burned.
Hundreds of miles to the south, winds picked up and sent flames rushing downhill on the flanks of Southern California’s Mount San Jacinto.
Helicopters making water drops and air tankers pouring red flame retardant circled overhead as flames burned both sides of the main road leading to the scenic town of Idyllwild.
The blaze erupted Wednesday and quickly turned into a wall of flame that torched timber and dry brush. In a matter of hours, the so-called Cranston Fire grew to 7.5 square miles.
About 3,000 residents were under evacuation orders Thursday in Idyllwild and several neighboring communities.
Theby a man whose car was spotted at the starting point of the blaze in Riverside County, officials said.
Brandon McGlover, 32, of Temecula was booked on suspicion of five counts of arson, state fire officials said.
The heart of Yosemite National Park remained empty the day after campers and hotel guests were evicted so firefighters could try to keep the state’s largest fire from entering the park nearly two weeks after it was sparked.
The closure was heartbreaking for travelers who mapped out trips months in advance to hike and climb amid the spectacular views of cascading waterfalls and sheer rock faces.
Daina Miller, of Tucson, Arizona, had wanted to visit Yosemite for years, but instead her family spent a few hours breathing foul-smelling smoke Tuesday before retreating to their RV for the night. The next morning, they left for Los Angeles.
“You go there and expect the fresh air and it was the total opposite of that,” she said Thursday. “It’s kind of funny, we’re going to LA to get some fresh air.”
The closure through at least Sunday led to at least 1,000 campground and hotel bookings being canceled, park spokesman Scott Gediman said.
Officials emphasized Yosemite wasn’t in imminent danger from the Ferguson Fire, which grew to more than 67 square miles in steep timber in the adjacent Sierra National Forest. The fire was just 25 percent contained.
One firefighter was killed July 14, and six others have been injured
In the north, evacuations were expanded in the wilderness recreation region near Redding that included Shasta and its historic former courthouse and ruins of brick buildings that make up Shasta State Historic Park.
Matt Teague, an acting district superintendent for state parks, drove an hour and half in the middle of the night to help employees of the park and volunteers rescue historic paintings, prints and other artifacts from the museum housed in the 1861 courthouse.
The fire’s faint glow was visible when he arrived at 3 a.m. and it kept getting brighter, he said.
Just before dawn, the flames had gotten close enough that they were about to evacuate when the fire changed direction and began burning to the north, he said.
That bought them five more hours to collect the most precious items until late morning when it became too dangerous and they were told they had to leave.
“We were on our toes the whole time, to be honest with you,” Teague said. “We didn’t get everything. We didn’t have time.”
Teague spoke later in the day as ash rained down and flames burned on both sides of town as temperatures in the area topped 110 degrees. He said the downtown and centerpiece of the park still stood, but it was unsafe to go inside and collect more relics.