A massive wildfire in Northern California has claimed the lives of three more people as it continued to spread Saturday, burning more than 83,000 acres and threatening new communities as firefighters struggled to keep up.
Melody Bledsoe, 70, and her great-grandchildren, 5-year-old James Roberts and 4-year-old Emily Roberts, died in the blaze, according to their family.
Bledsoe’s granddaughter Amanda Woodley confirmed the news Saturday afternoon in a public Facebook post written just after she left the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office. Woodley said Bledsoe did everything she could to save the children.
“She was hovered over them both with a wet blanket,” she wrote.
“My heart is crushed,” she said. “I can’t believe this is real. I just keep seeing all of their beautiful faces.”
Bledsoe’s husband, Ed Bledsoe, wasn’t home when the fire struck, according to an online fundraiser created by another family member. The family did not believe their home was under evacuation and Ed went out to get supplies. The family was renting and did not have insurance.
Speaking to the Sacramento Bee, Ed Bledsoe wept as he recounted trying to get back to the house.
“God almighty, I don’t know what I done wrong,” he said. “I talked to them until the fire got them.”
Redding police confirmed that they had received a missing persons report on Bledsoe and the two children but could not comment on details because the Shasta County Sheriff’s Department is the investigating agency.
“My sympathy goes out to the family,” Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said at a news conference on the report on Bledsoe and her great-grandchildren.
“I have not had a confirmation of death,” Bosenko said, but he added that his investigators are “overwhelmingly sure that there are decedents at the scene but no bodies have been recovered.”
A firefighter and a bulldozer operator were also killed this week battling the Carr fire. Don Ray Smith, 81, of Pollock Pines was identified by the sheriff's office Saturday as the bulldozer operator. Smith was overtaken by the fire, and his body was found by emergency personnel in the area of Benson Drive and Rock Creek Road.
Authorities are investigating 13 other missing persons cases connected to the fire.
Redding police Sgt. Todd Cogle said that some of those reported missing may have fled their homes without cellphones and be safe in evacuation centers or out of the area.
“My hope is that we are able to find all of them eventually. However, the possibility does exist that there may be far more grave situations for some of them,” Cogle said.
On Saturday morning, the Carr fire barreled toward the towns of Igo and Ono, prompting new evacuations. Temperatures in Redding were expected to hit 110 degrees Saturday and reach triple digits through Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.
The challenges facing firefighters — steep terrain and hot weather combined with dry brush and other vegetation that can fuel a fire — are among the most difficult they could encounter, said Greg Bertelli, an incident commander at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“Any one of those factors will make containing a fire extremely difficult,” Bertelli said. “The Carr fire, at times, experienced all three combined. This fire is moving, at times, three or four different directions.”
The Carr fire swept into Redding on Thursday night and has so far burned more than 83,000 acres, with only 5% containment, officials said. About 38,000 people were evacuated in Shasta County. About 5,000 structures are threatened.
The fire also has compromised the integrity of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge, which spans Clear Creek in rural Igo, according to the California Highway Patrol.
Bledsoe and her two great-grandchildren were reported missing late Friday by a family friend, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. They hadn’t been seen since their Redding home burned Thursday night.
Donald Kewley, the boyfriend of Bledsoe’s granddaughter, said he called Bledsoe’s house late Thursday as the fire grew closer to the area.
“She was screaming, ‘It’s getting closer,’ and you could hear the sirens,” Kewley told the Chronicle. “Then the phone went dead.”
An evacuation center at Shasta College reached capacity at 8 a.m. Saturday. More than 500 people forced from their homes are bunking in the campus’ cafeteria and gymnasium, and livestock and pets are being housed in the school’s agricultural pavilion. The evacuees in the air-conditioned facilities include residents of three senior care facilities, many of whom are not mobile, according to Peter Griggs, the college’s director of marketing and outreach.
“We are at a very safe distance,” he said.
At a late-morning briefing at the college, ash rained down on fire officials as they told evacuees no one could answer the top question on everyone’s mind: When can we go home?
“This fire still has very explosive behavior,” one official told evacuees. “It’s likely to continue that way.”
Many people who brought pets and weren’t allowed inside camped in their cars in the parking lot or on cots laid out on one of the campus’ open lawn areas.
News of the magnitude of the property damage was just filtering through the impromptu community of evacuees Friday night.
Dena Balding and Claire Lillian were sharing a domed camping tent and preparing for their second straight night at the evacuation site.
“We might be here for days,” Lillian said. A police officer drove her away from her apartment on Thursday night, as she had no other means of travel. She said she appreciated the efforts of first responders, as well as the services at the college being provided by the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross. “They’re doing the best they can,” she said.
One man crossing the evacuation lines was Jerry Kirk, a ferrier in Anderson. When the fire kicked up Thursday, Kirk wrote a Facebook post offering help evacuating livestock.
“I’ve had two or three hours of sleep since then,” Kirk said at noon Saturday.
With his Dodge pickup and a trailer, Kirk said he had rescued about 200 animals from rural ranches and farms, including 50 horses and numerous goats and sheep.
Many times when he pulled onto a property, the flames were nearby and the residents and animals were panicked, he said.
“They aren’t going to leave their animals and they are just waiting on me,” he said.
When he arrived in Igo to pick up animals at 5 a.m. Saturday, the fire was 10 miles in the distance, he recalled.
“Nobody was concerned or really moving that quickly,” he said. By his third trip, at 9 a.m., “there was fire right there in town.”
In the River Ridge Park subdivision, Austin Bramson, 16, had spent months working with his father to restore a 1965 Chevrolet Nova. The classic car was almost finished, ready for the coat of paint to make it look new. They had to leave it behind in the garage as they evacuated.
“All that work — gone,” Austin said, almost in tears, as he looked over the shell of his home.
For others, it was agonizing to know when to flee.
In southwest Redding on Friday evening, a spot fire broke in the hills above Cedars Road. Residents watched nervously as they packed their belongings in the 101-degree heat. Helicopters thrummed as a voice from the loudspeaker of a police cruiser told residents to get out.
“I just kept watching things,” said Crystal Harper, who stood in her driveway with the car packed. “And it’s time.”
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Steve Rice, a resident of 55 years.
Rice watched as a young man kept driving and stopping, unsure of how to proceed.
“There’s all kinds of people walking around that shouldn’t even be here,” said Rice, who had left garden hoses watering down his RV beside his house.
A nearby resident could be heard yelling at a neighbor, wondering why he hadn’t made preparations to leave.
Rice had family members sitting in a nearby vehicle ready to caravan away with him. He didn’t have time to get everything he wanted from his home.
But he left one item intentionally — an American flag flying on a pole by his front door, a plea of sorts to firefighters.
“Hopefully they’ll see that and protect it,” he said.