REDDING — A utility worker was killed near a Northern California wildfire as crews working in sweltering conditions battled multiple blazes, including twin fires that exploded in size and forced hundreds more to evacuate rural communities, officials said Sunday.
The Pacific Gas and Electric employee was fatally injured in a vehicle-related accident Saturday on the western edge of the Carr Fire in Shasta County, said utility spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin. Jairus Ayeta, who was in his 20s, worked as an apprentice lineman and was part of a PG&E crew working in “dangerous terrain” to restore power, she said.
Ayeta is the seventh person to die in the immense blaze that has been burning for two weeks near Redding, where armies of firefighters and fleets of aircraft continue battling the flames about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of the Oregon state line. Two firefighters and four residents, including two children, were also killed. The fire was more than 40 percent contained Sunday.
Meanwhile to the south, new evacuations were ordered Saturday evening near twin fires burning in Mendocino and Lake counties across wilderness on both sides of Clear Lake. Dry, hot winds fueled both blazes, which have collectively charred nearly 400 square miles (1,036 square kilometers) of brush and timber. The entire so-called Mendocino Complex Fire is now one of the largest on record in the state, officials said.
The Ranch Fire was just 22 percent contained and the River Fire was 50 percent contained. New evacuations were ordered in neighboring Glenn and Colusa counties, including an area just east of the boundary of Mendocino National Forest.
Some 15,000 structures were threatened, 68 homes have been destroyed and at least a dozen are damaged, officials said.
The fire remained several miles from the evacuated communities along the eastern shore of the lake, but “it looks like there’s dicey weather on the way,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Jane LaBoa said.
Meteorologist Steve Anderson said wind gusts could reach 25 mph (40 kph) during the day Sunday. Temperatures will remain hot all week across much of the state including Southern California, where red flag warnings for increased fire danger are in place.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Saturday toured Redding neighborhoods wiped out by flames and called on President Donald Trump to help California fight and recover from the devastating wildfire season.
“The president has been pretty good on helping us in disasters, so I’m hopeful,” said Brown, a Democrat. “Tragedies bring people together.”
Some areas on the fire’s southeastern flank were reopened to relieved residents.
The Carr Fire, which incinerated 1,067 homes, started with sparks from the steel wheel of a towed-trailer’s flat tire, Department of Agriculture and Fire Prevention officials said.
The fire burned slowly for days before winds suddenly whipped it up last week and drove it quickly through dry brush and trees.
It burned so furiously on July 26 that it created what is called a fire whirl. The twirling tower of flame reached speeds of 143 mph (230 kph), which rivaled some of the most destructive Midwest tornados, National Weather Service meteorologist Duane Dykema said. The whirl uprooted trees and tore roofs from homes, Dykema said.
There are at least 18 major fires burning throughout California, authorities said. In all, they have destroyed hundreds of homes, killed eight people — including two firefighters assisting in a wildfire near Yosemite National Park.
Hundreds of colleagues, family and friends attended a memorial service Saturday in Fresno for National Forest Service Capt. Brian Hughes. He was killed July 29 by a falling tree while fighting the blaze that has closed Yosemite at the height of tourist season.
Firefighters have achieved more than 40 percent containment of that fire, which had reached into remote areas of the country’s third-oldest national park.