The devastating Carr Fire continued to spread Saturday into rural areas of Shasta County, but authorities were beginning to express more confidence that they had halted the advance of the flames into the city of Redding and could turn their focus to battling the flames west of the city and deal with an outbreak of looting reports.
The five-day-old fire’s burned area jumped from 48,000 acres Friday evening to 83,800 acres by Saturday night, a swath of 130 square miles, and was only at 5 percent containment. Authorities reported five dead and several still missing. The fire had destroyed 536 structures, damaged another 117 and was threatening nearly 5,000.
Officials emphasized that the danger is not over and asked for patience from the 38,000 people who have been forced from their homes since Thursday evening.
“This fire is a disaster,” Sacramento firefighter Chris Harvey told a crowd of residents Saturday as ash rained down on them. “It’s a very large event with very high speed and very high temperatures that are going to last a couple of days.
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“The fire still has very explosive behavior.”
Some evacuation centers had filled to capacity by Saturday, and as officials moved to open more restless residents began to press for answers about when they could return home, something they could not answer because the fire danger remains.
Mark Stoeper of Igo was evacuated Thursday, and knows from a neighbor who refused to leave that his house is still standing, but he isn’t being told when he can go back.
”I know people have gone back to their homes,” he said. “I see photos (on social media). How did they get out there? It’s a mystery to me.”
Local officials say they have not yet allowed any of the evacuees back into their homes, and so far refuse to give a time frame for doing so, saying it is a laborious process of working with utility companies, tree services and others to make sure the street is habitable and safe.
The process of “repopulation” may not begin until mid-week, officials said.
Meanwhile, evacuation centers have filled up and officials are working on opening new centers and urging people who have not been subject to a mandatory evacuation to avoid going to the shelters.
Shelters continued to fill Saturday as more communities were subject to mandatory evacuations.
The biggest center, Shasta College, maxed out Friday at 562 temporary residents, turning it into a teeming city, spilling onto the football field where some people set up cots.
The American Red Cross is running this and three other shelters and is considering opening another.
”For all accounts, this is not going to stop soon,” said Stephen Walsh, Red Cross spokesman. “We may be opening many more.”
Dave Rasmussen of the city of Shasta Lake is bunked out on the football field, not because there wasn’t room in the gym. His wife is in there. He just wanted his own space with some elbow room.
”This is fine, they’re treating us well, food, showers,” he said, but his house is fine and he hears the fire has passed, yet he has gotten no word about his fate the next few days. “Why can’t I go back? They won’t let us in.”
With so many people locked out of huge areas of the city, looters had moved in to take advantage, officials said, adding that police patrols are being increased and hat National Guard troops are being brought in to help.
“We’re experiencing a lot of looting and are beefing up our security,” Redding Police Chief Roger Moore told a crowd of about 250 residents Saturday afternoon. And Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko received a round of applause when he announced the first arrest of a suspected looter.
“We’ve just made an arrest and that person is going off to jail and we caught him,” Bosenko said. “He was a parolee.”
Officials said the Shasta County District Attorney’s Office has vowed to prosecute looting cases as felonies (in some past fires suspected looters have ended up facing misdemeanor charges), and Bosenko noted that one of his deputies who had lost his home to the fire is still on patrol and had posted a sign declaring, “No looting on my watch.”
The specter of looters roaming empty neighborhoods has made the uncertainty worse for some residents, like Charlie and Shelley Dunbar, who moved into their new house on Buenaventura Boulevard in west Redding two months ago.
The couple fled the home Thursday evening as flames fanned into their neighborhood. Their fence was burned but the house spared, but they have not been allowed back in and are getting anxious.
“They say the National Guard is here patrolling, then why is there still looting?” Shelley asked.
Fire officials have spent days emphasizing how dangerous and unpredictable the Carr Fire has, that it roared over the Sacramento River into Redding Thursday night with little warning and was so fierce it was creating fire tornadoes that blew out windows and toppled trees.
But favorable weather conditions the last two days – mostly the lack of fierce winds – allowed fire crews to reinforce lines and officials were beginning to speak openly about the danger to Redding, which they feared might have to be evacuated, might pass.
“We are pretty confident,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Troy Velin told residents Saturday afternoon.
There still is a massive amount of work to do, however, and fire crews were working to stop the flames from advancing north and southwest of the city. Evacuation orders continued throughout the day areas such as Happy Valley near Anderson.
Along portions of Cloverdale Road about 10 miles southwest of Redding, firefighters had been using the road as a firebreak to stop the fire’s advance toward the community of Igo.
U.S. Forest Service firefighter Marc Ellsworth was leading a 20-person hotshot squad Saturday morning using drip torches to set backfires and said the situation remained perilous.
“This is far from put to bed,” Ellsworth said of the blaze, adding that “right now this is pretty critical” to saving Igo, population 625, which was evacuated Friday night as flames approached.
Leonard and Christine Carter have lived four miles from the town for 35 years, and their home nearly burned down in 2013 in the Cloverdale Fire. Earlier this summer, they watched as the Creek Fire burned dangerously close a few hills over.
But they hadn’t evacuated, even though they live in the evacuation zone. Friday night, they watched embers fall around their home “like snowflakes,” Leonard Carter said.
Their SUV and car are packed and ready to go, at the first sign the fire is approaching. The couple spent Saturday afternoon spritzing their property with a garden hose.
They’re staying for now because they have three dogs and five cats, and no hotels have rooms available.
So far, the winds appear to be blowing the fire away from them, but they said the gusts this week have been erratic.
“You can throw a leaf in the air and see where the wind blows,” he said.
Satellite imagery showed the fire continued to burn strongly from Friday night to Saturday morning, but was burning more on its western, northern and southern flanks away from Redding.
Tanya and Che Steadman, owners of the Moonstone Bistro, were parked at the Clear Creek Gorge bridge at the edge of town at 6:30 a.m., checking for the fire’s approach, and debating whether they should leave.
Tanya said the wall of fire in the distance was “like a mountain” itself. She could hear the popping of exploding propane tanks, one after the other.
Fire officials said the fire was burning Saturday morning in the secluded Mule Creek area nearby, two miles closer to Redding, where some large homes are set into the hills.
Firefighters spent the predawn hours there battling a line of flames. Several homes in that area were on fire Saturday morning.
Jerry Magana of Cal Fire surveyed the scene in Mule Creek Saturday morning, watching flames break a quarter-mile away.
“That’s it,” he said, heading to his truck. Fire crews were at the Mule Creek homes, he said, trying to save them.
The Carr Fire, which was started by a vehicle mechanical failure, reached the city of Redding in full force Thursday night, blowing through western subdivisions and consuming entire blocks of homes.
Some residents learned their homes had been destroyed when they slipped back into neighborhoods past police lines.
Victor Steiner, 30, an auto mechanic and former Sacramento resident, found out a different way.
Steiner and his wife, Jessie, a veterinarian, evacuated their Lake Redding Estates home with three cats and five chickens and spent time helping to move 30 cats and dogs from her vet clinic to safety.
Then they came to Sacramento, where his father in Curtis Park showed him a video of a reporter standing in his driveway next to his burned up 1995 Honda Civic.
“I saw a reporter standing in my driveway,” he said. “That was our confirmation that it was all gone.
“I guess the car being left behind made for a great visual.”
Steiner sounded relaxed as he spoke.
“We managed to get out, so pretty much all the material possessions are gone but that’s what insurance is for,” he said.
So far, the death toll is at five.
Two died fighting the blaze: Redding fire inspector Jeremy Stoke, 37, and a bulldozer operator, Don Ray Smith, 81, of Pollock Pines, working on contract to cut fire lines.
Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the Capitol flags lowered to half-staff for three days in honor of Smith and Stoke, a 17-year firefighting veteran who is survived by his wife, Alyson; 13-year-old son, Caleb; and 9-year-old daughter, Aubrey.
Also believed to have died are a 70-year-old woman and her two great-grandchildren.
According to relative Donald Kewley, James Roberts, 4, and Emily Roberts, 5, went missing with their great grandmother, Melody Bledsoe, 70, Thursday night. Kewley told The Sacramento Bee that the three were last seen at their home near Keswick Dam Road and Quartz Hill Road – a home that was destroyed in the blaze – before evacuations were ordered.
Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko confirmed that three bodies were found inside the family home, but that no formal identification has been made yet.
“They are overwhelmingly sure that there are decedents at the scene,” the sheriff said. “And they have communicated that with family members. However, no bodies have been recovered.
“We are still working with fire personnel to cool the site down so we can have access with our staff. The house has been consumed. The roof collapsed and is covering the footprint of the home.”
Authorities say as many as 20 missing persons reports had come in, but Bosenko said Satuday that “the majority of those have been cleared.”
More than 3,400 fire crews battled throughout the day and into the night using C-130 tankers, helicopters, hoses and shovels in an effort to halt the fire’s advances.
The work has been arduous and intense, with numerous small successes. Saturday morning, inmate fire crews using chainsaws and hand tools stopped a fire from jumping into a dense stand of brush and trees yards from two homes near the intersection of Diggins Way and Placer Road, a few miles west of Redding.
Using hoe-like hand tools known as McLeods, they hacked a four-foot fire break down to bare dirt around the fire, and firefighters doused the flames with water from a fire truck. The fire quickly burned itself out, and nearby homes were untouched.