‘Like a war zone’: Neighborhoods leveled, looting reported in huge California fire; death toll at 5

Carla Bledsoe, facing camera, hugs her sister Sherri outside of the sheriff's office after hearing news that Sherri's children James, 4, and Emily 5,  and grandmother were killed in a wildfire Saturday, July 28, 2018, in Redding, Calif.

REDDING, Calif. – Looting has been reported in neighborhoods ravaged by an out-of-control fire moving through Northern California that has killed five people, including a woman and her two great-grandchildren.

Redding Police Chief Roger Moore says there has been “a lot” of looting throughout the area. He said the department has gotten reports of people driving around evacuated areas and attempting to break through the doors of homes still standing. Several suspects have been identified and one man, who was on parole, was arrested and would be charged with a felony.

“We caught him,” Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko announced during a community meeting Saturday afternoon to a roar of applause.

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The Carr Fire, driven by howling winds, grew to 131 square miles Saturday night as its fiery tentacles spread to the communities of Ono, Igo and Gas Point. As of Saturday afternoon, the six-day-old blaze had destroyed 500 buildings and stolen five lives.

A 70-year-old woman and her two great-grandchildren died in a rural trailer home leveled by a wind-driven wildfire ravishing Northern California.

The deaths of Melody Bledsoe and her great-grandchildren, 5-year-old James Roberts and 4-year-old Emily Roberts were confirmed by the children’s mother, Sherry Bledsoe, and the Shasta County sheriff’s office.

“My babies are dead,” Sherry Bledsoe said through tears after being informed of the deaths. Friends and other family members comforted the mother as she cried outside the sheriff’s office.

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Family members had been desperately searching for the three since the home was consumed by fire, causing the roof to collapse and prevent fire officials from getting inside.

Bledsoe’s husband was out getting supplies at the store when his great-grandson called him and said he needed to get home because the fire was approaching.

Two firefighters were also killed battling the out-of-control blaze: Jeremy Stoke, a fire inspector for the Redding Fire Department, and Don Ray Smith, 81, a private bulldozer operator.

Fire officials were able to access some of the areas ravaged by flames Saturday, finding a trail of destruction left behind. A number of homes in Lake Kenswick Estates subdivision were completely leveled as the blaze quickly took over. All that was left was a trail of ash, brick and metal, along with some charred remains of pools, sheds, and the shell of what were vehicles.

“Complete subdivisions leveled. It looked like a war zone,” Sheriff Bosenko said. “Sometimes no homes standing and those were some people’s lives that they had and had many memories that were invested there.”.

Officials have said the number of buildings destroyed is expected to rise from 500.

About 37,000 people are under evacuation orders, 5,000 homes are threatened and the fire is just 5 percent contained.

In Happy Valley, residents hurried as they loaded what they could of their possessions into vehicles, including pets and livestock.

The Dwinell family, who have lived in the area since the 1940s, loaded a recreation vehicle with some belongings and their dog. Earnie Dwinell Jr. Looked up as he helped his parents pack the RV. It’s “bad, just bad,” the 61-year-old said.

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“We’ve been here all our lives, and it isn’t normal,” he said about the fire. “Well, I guess it is normal now.”.

The winds driving the tornadic wildfire in Northern California temporarily aided firefighters Saturday by keeping it from more populated areas, but also unleashed the flames at a frightening pace into communities dotting the southwest of Redding, forcing chaotic overnight evacuations.

At the same time, fire officials warned, winds were likely to shift again, driving the runaway flames back toward Redding, with a population around 92,000.

“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.”.

To communities southwest of the city, the message overnight from the Igo Ono Fire Department was blunt: “Time to go now. Leave Igo take your pets time to go.”.

With the wind-whipped fire bearing down on Igo, an unincorporated community of around 600 people, law enforcement officials posted the warning on Facebook and also went door to door to urge residents to clear out.

Igo, and nearby Ono and Gaspoint were just three more communities caught in the path of the voracious wildfire in Northern California that has destroyed 500 structures, making it unofficially one of the top 20 most destructive California wildfires.

The so-called 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.

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What officials called a possible tornado made matters worse, uprooting trees and damaging roads as crews worked to get a handle on the deadly blaze.

Justin Montes, from Lake Redding, said he was the last person to leave his neighborhood as the fire closed in.

He said he was running from his house to his car in very high winds that toppled trees and scattered branches on the playground next door.

It was like a firestorm – winds ripping through. I saw sparks flying and trash cans being thrown about. My fence was ripped apart.” Montes said. “I thought my house was toast.”.

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Hot, dry weather is forecast through the weekend with temperatures well over 100 degrees. The winds, high temperatures and dry vegetation have the potential to fuel the fire’s growth, Cal Fire officials said.

The Carr Fire is one of 14 active fires in California involving more than 10,000 firefighters.

President Donald Trump on Saturday declared a state of emergency in California following a formal request Friday from Gov. Jerry Brown for emergency assistance.

The declaration authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide equipment and resources as warranted to address the emergency.

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, these fires have burned nearly 250 square miles and destroyed over 500 structures. Yosemite Valley remains closed to visitors and won’t reopen until Friday.

Jenny Espino and Jim Schultz report for the Redding (Calif.) Record Searchlight; Stanglin and Hayes report from McLean,Va.; Contributing: Associated Press.

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