National News

Deadly wildfire near Redding grows, claims 6th life

REDDING, Calif. -- As thousands of firefighters worked Sunday to push the massive Carr Fire away from homes and subdivisions, some still smoking from bouts with flame, the toll on the besieged city became only more clear -- and more grim.

Posted Updated

Michael Cabanatuan
Kurtis Alexander, San Francisco Chronicle

REDDING, Calif. -- As thousands of firefighters worked Sunday to push the massive Carr Fire away from homes and subdivisions, some still smoking from bouts with flame, the toll on the besieged city became only more clear -- and more grim.

A sixth fatality was found in the rubble, according to Shasta County sheriff's deputies. The victim's identity was not immediately released, though authorities said the individual had refused orders to evacuate. Two firefighters as well as a woman and her two great-grandchildren had previously been confirmed dead.

Meanwhile, nearly 520 structures were estimated to have burned, many on the western edge of Redding where the fire made an extraordinary run last week from the county's rural hills, near Whiskeytown Lake, into suburbia more than 10 miles away.

While the threat to the city has eased, the blaze showed little sign of letting up. It expanded to 89,194 acres as of Sunday, officials said, and was finding easy fuel to burn in the tinder-dry hills west of Whiskeytown Lake.

Temperatures in the area soared to 104 degrees Sunday, while fire officials said the blaze was so immense it was generating its own wind and weather patterns. Fire tornadoes were reported to have uprooted trees and overturned cars.

Close to 40,000 people remained under evacuation orders Sunday, with the small town of Lewistown in adjacent Trinity County becoming one of the latest to empty out.

Containment was estimated at just 5 percent. About 3,800 firefighters were on the job.

``We've had some big fires here before. I remember seeing flames leaping in the air. But nothing like this,'' said Shasta County Supervisor Leonard Moty, who represents the area where the fire ignited and has lived in Redding his entire life.

Although evacuation orders had not been lifted Sunday for burned-out parts of the city, Anna Noland was determined to learn the fate of her home near Keswick Dam.

Noland was at work Thursday night when the Carr Fire roared into the city. With flames approaching, she wasn't about to wait for the official order to tell her 16-year-old daughter, who was home, to evacuate their residence of eight years. And it's a good thing her daughter got out, Noland said, because they never got a call or text telling them to go.

The fire, Noland discovered on Sunday, devoured all but the front wall of their house on Cape Cod Drive, leaving a charred pile of their life possessions inside. Noland remained surprisingly upbeat in the face of the destruction, excited to see some trinkets had survived.

``I found an Eiffel Tower and some gnomes,'' she exclaimed.

While her neighbor's home was spared, most of the houses on the street and adjoining streets were also leveled, a ghostly scene reminiscent of the neighborhoods devastated in last October's Wine Country fires.

The victims of the Carr Fire include Melody Bledsoe and her great-grandchildren, Emily Roberts, 5, and James Roberts, 4. The three were found dead in the ashes of their Redding home Saturday.

``Grandma did everything she could to save them,'' said family member Amanda Woodley in a Facebook post. ``She was hovered over them both with a wet blanket.''

Also among the dead were two men battling the blaze, bulldozer operator Don Ray Smith, 81, of Pollock Pines, and Jeremy Stoke, a fire inspector with the Redding Fire Department.

The fire started on the afternoon of July 23 from a vehicle mechanical failure, which authorities have not elaborated on.

Sunday's growth was less than in previous days, which provided at least a little optimism among firefighters.

``Today is a much better day,'' said Bret Gouvea, the fire's incident commander.

Authorities, however, said the fire was continuing to expand in all directions, except toward Redding. Officials warned that a heat advisory for the area through Monday morning may continue to create challenging conditions.

Richard Urban, 79, and Barbara Urban, 78, were eager to return home after evacuating in their 33-foot Winnebago Adventurer on Friday to a friend's farm across town.

In their 48 years in the house, the couple has evacuated multiple times.

``But this time,'' Richard said, ``I thought we were done.''

Fortunately for the Urbans, when they arrived home to their leafy south Redding neighborhood, they found that their house had been spared.

Copyright 2023 San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved.