REDDING, Calif. (CBS News/AP) — Firefighters battling a huge wildfire in Northern California kept it from doing more damage to the city of Redding but three smaller communities were in danger as flames closed in and residents packed up to leave.
The Carr Fire grew by about 35 percent overnight to 80,906 acres (127 square miles) and pushed southwest of Redding, toward the communities of Ono, Igo and Gas Point. It is only 5 percent contained.
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. “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.”
The Carr Fire was ignited Monday by a vehicle and exploded Thursday night, jumped the Sacramento River and pushed into Redding, about 250 miles north of San Francisco and the largest city in the region with about 92,000 residents.
The latest tally of 500 destroyed structures was sure to rise. About 37,000 people are under evacuation orders and 5,000 homes are threatened.
Two firefighters were killed in the blaze, Redding fire inspector Jeremy Stoke and a bulldozer operator whose name wasn’t immediately released. He was the second bulldozer operator killed in a California blaze in less than two weeks.
The death count rose to five after Melody Bledsoe, 70, and her two small great-grandchildren were overcome by the blaze at their home outside of Redding. “My babies are dead,” the children’s mother Sherry Bledsoe said through tears.
Only a handful of homes still stand in the small community of Keswick, located west of Redding.
Somewhere in the ash was the home of Shyla and Jason Campbell, a firefighter who was six hours away battling a wildfire burning near Yosemite Valley when the Carr Fire moved in on his home and family.
Shyla Campbell, 32, said it was nearly 2 a.m. Thursday when she got an official alert to evacuate.
“It’s huge flames, it’s coming up the hill, and everyone’s out and we’re watching it, then it goes down, and everyone’s like, ‘Oh it’s going out,’ ” she said. “And I’m like, ‘No, it’s going down the mountain and it’s going to come back up the next ridge.’ ”
She was right.
The family spent the night at a hotel. When Jason Campbell returned from the blaze he was fighting on Friday, he found his own home had gone up in flames, along with an RV and a boat.
“It’s tough,” Shyla Campbell said Friday from the city of Shasta Lake. “I just have to figure out where we’re going to stay. We’re just trying to stay away from the fire.”
A broken-down vehicle started the Carr Fire on Monday. The blaze began as a small wildfire and erupted into a living hellscape.
Thousands of people scrambled to escape before the walls of flames descended from forested hills onto their neighborhoods Thursday. Residents who gathered their belongings in haste described a chaotic and congested getaway as the embers blew up to a mile ahead of flames and the fire leaped across the wide Sacramento River and torched subdivisions in Redding.
“It’s like a war zone,” one woman said. “It’s just like a bomb just hit each house and just exploded.”
Redding police Chief Roger Moore was among those who lost their homes, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Greg and Terri Hill evacuated their Redding home of 18 years Thursday night with little more than their medications, photo albums, clothes and firearms, assuming they’d be back in a few days.
But when they returned Friday, virtually nothing was left of their home but fine particles of ash. The remains were smoldering so hot, they couldn’t get too close 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.”
Liz Williams loaded up two kids in her car and then found herself locked in bumper-to-bumper traffic with neighbors trying to retreat from Lake Redding Estates.
She eventually jumped the curb onto the sidewalk and “booked it.”
“I’ve never experienced something so terrifying in my life,” she said. “I didn’t know if the fire was just going to jump out behind abush and grab me and suck me in.”
The flames moved so fast that firefighters working in oven-like temperatures and bone-dry conditions had to drop efforts to battle the blaze at one point to help people escape.
The fire, which created at least two flaming tornados that toppled trees, shook firefighting equipment and busted truck windows, took “down everything in its path,” said Scott McLean, a spokesman for Cal Fire, the state agency responsible for fighting wildfires.
“They say it was like a ‘fire tornado,'” said Chris Corona, one man who lives in the area.
On Friday, he returned to sift through what was left.
“This was my house since I was born,” he said, getting emotional.
Fire officials warned that the blaze would probably burn deeper into urban areas before there was any hope of containing it, though it either changed direction or was stopped before it could burn into the core of the city.
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