REDDING (AP) — The death count from a rapidly growing Northern California wildfire rose to five Saturday after two young children and their great-grandmother who had been unaccounted for were confirmed dead.
“My babies are dead,” Sherry Bledsoe said through tears after she and family members met with Shasta County sheriff’s deputies.
Bledsoe’s two children, James Roberts, 5, and Emily Roberts, 4, were stranded with her grandmother Melody Bledsoe, 70, when fire swept through the rural area where they were staying Thursday.
The three were among more than a dozen people reported missing after the furious wind-driven blaze took residents by surprise and leveled several neighborhoods.
Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said he expects to find several of those people alive and just out of touch with loved ones. Officers have gone to homes of several people reported missing and found that cars were gone — a strong indication they fled.
The fire that was ignited Monday in forested hills grew overnight to 127 square miles. It pushed southwest of Redding toward tiny communities of Ono, Igo and Gas Point, where scorching heat, winds and bone-dry conditions complicated firefighting efforts.
It’s now the largest of more than 20 fires burning in California. The winds that aided firefighters in keeping the flames from more populated areas were propelling it forward at a frightening rate.
“We’re not getting a break with the weather,” said Chris Anthony, a spokesman for Cal Fire, the state agency responsible for fighting wildfires. “It just continues to be really hot, really dry and we continue to get those winds. … This fire’s getting so big and there are so many different parts to it.”
Two firefighters were killed and the latest tally of 500 destroyed structures was sure to rise. A count by The Associated Press found more than 300 homes destroyed.
About 37,000 people are under evacuation orders, 5,000 homes are threatened and the fire was just 5 percent contained.
Meanwhile, about 120 miles (200 kilometers) southwest of Redding, two blazes prompted mandatory evacuations in Mendocino County. The two fires, burning 30 miles (50 kilometers) apart, started Friday and are threatening more than 350 buildings. The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office ordered evacuations for people living in an area north of Highway 175 near Hopland. Residents in neighboring Benmore Valley were also told to leave Saturday.
Cal Fire officials said more than 10,000 firefighters were on the line, making progress on 14 large wildfires across California.
President Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration for California on Saturday, allowing counties affected by wildfires to receive federal assistance.
Huge fires continued to burn outside Yosemite National Park and in the San Jacinto Mountains east of Los Angeles near Palm Springs. As of Saturday morning, those fires had burned nearly 160,000 acres (64,700 hectares) and destroyed over 500 structures. Yosemite Valley remained closed to visitors and won’t reopen until Friday.
Nationally, 89 active large fires have consumed nearly 930,000 acres (376,000 hectares) in 14 states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. So far this year, nearly 37,000 wildfires have burned more than 4.25 million acres (1.7 million hectares).
The Carr Fire destroyed nearly all of Keswick, a hamlet just west of Redding, which is about 250 miles (402 kilometers) north of San Francisco.
Redding Police Chief Roger Moore was among those who lost homes.
Greg and Terri Hill evacuated their Redding home of 18 years Thursday night with little more than medications, photo albums, clothes and firearms, assuming they’d be back home in a few days.
When they returned Friday, virtually nothing was left but fine particles of ash. It was so hot, they couldn’t walk through it to see if anything survived.
“It’s pretty emotional,” Terri Hill said. “I know it’s just stuff. A lot of memories. But we’ll make new memories and get new stuff. Everybody’s safe.”
The Red Cross has a Safe & Well registry for people who want to be marked as safe or for people searching for loved ones.
Cal Fire estimates the Carr Fire has destroyed 500 homes. Two firefighters have been killed.