The Carr Fire gave this embattled city of 92,000 residents a breather Sunday, continuing its turn toward rural Shasta and Trinity counties. But the threat wasn’t over, a sixth fatality was discovered, and public safety officials remained cautious about allowing the 38,000 evacuees to return home.
Fire fighting conditions improved in and around Redding, as winds stayed calm throughout the day. “We are very encouraged with the fire status in the city today,” said Cal Fire incident manager Bret Gouvea in an afternoon press briefing. “We’ve had no movement on the fire over the last day inside the city limits.”
Even so, the death toll from the fire grew. Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said a sixth person had been found dead Sunday. He wouldn’t say where the person died but added that the victim had received an evacuation notice but didn’t leave.
In addition, seven people in Redding remain missing, he said.
The deadly blaze, which had chewed through 95,000 acres, began surging into Trinity County, where the tiny community of Lewiston, with a population of about 1,100, was evacuated late Saturday.
Gouvea said firefighters were struggling to contain the fire around a 100-mile perimeter, but added: “We’re feeling a lot more optimistic today as we’re starting to make up some ground instead of being on the defensive.” Containment grew from 5 percent to 17 percent late Sunday.
Still, Gouvea said that wind and weather patterns remain unpredictable and “the fire does continue to grow on us in some remote areas.” Late Sunday more evacuations were ordered, stretching from the Buckhorn Summit Road area west of Whiskeytown Lake well into eastern Trinity County.
Just two days earlier, public safety officials were urging residents to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. On Sunday, their plea to the thousands who fled was markedly different: Be patient about going home.
“We care about you, and we are moving as fast as we can to get you back into your homes,” said Mike Hebrard, the Shasta County fire chief. “We understand how that feels, a lot of us are evacuated as well. We are clearing areas and making it safe as fast as we can.”
The Shasta County Sheriff’s Department did lift evacuation orders late Saturday for the Redding Ranchettes area, just south of the Win-River Casino. But officials were adamant about issuing a mass “re-population” order for the bulk of the evacuees.
Leonard Moty, a county supervisor who’s among the evacuees, added: “Let the fire personnel make it safe before you go back.”
There have been scattered reports of looting, and National Guard troops have been stationed at multiple road blocks around the city. Roger Moore, Redding’s police chief, said the department had beefed up patrol and will arrest people who can’t show a reason for being in an evacuated neighborhood.
“If we don’t arrest them for looting, we’ll arrest them for something else,” he said. “We are nipping it in the bud before it happens.” He said someone was arrested late Saturday on an illegal weapons charge.
The evacuees, meanwhile, were trying to remain patient.
At the Shasta College evacuation center, Otis Bershers, 75, was waiting anxiously for word that he and his wife, Carol, could return to their home in the city of Shasta Lake, north of Redding.
They’ve been sleeping on cots on the lawn outside the college since late Thursday, and Otis Bershers is starting to run low on his medication. He has the chronic lung condition known as COPD, and breathing the smoky air isn’t good for him. But he declined an offer to go to the hospital and said he wouldn’t leave his wife or their cat, Smokey, who was tethered to their cots.
“God, I hope they lift it on my place,” he said of the evacuation order. “I want to go home. But as long as I got my cat and her, I can’t go wrong.”
Stuart and Renee Bailey, sitting in their SUV outside their west Redding subdivision, were anxious to return home as well. Their property escaped the fire, and Stuart Bailey, a contractor, was hoping to stop in to pick up some tools for work. The couple also wanted to see if the home had been looted.
Law enforcement personnel turned them away. But the Baileys said they understood the need to be cautious. When another couple got miffed at being denied entry to the neighborhood, the Baileys told them to stay calm.
“Cut them some slack,” Stuart Bailey said, referring to the law enforcement officials. “You’ll get in sooner or later.”
The re-population process will be slow and will start with the areas that Cal Fire believes are safest from potential return of the fire, officials said. “We don’t want to allow (people) back in, then if conditions change, have to re-evacuate,” Bosenko said. “We can’t open the floodgates. We have to do it in segments.”
Utility crews are fixing gas lines and performing other repairs in preparation for re-population. By Sunday afternoon, Redding Electric Utility had restored power to 7,400 customers, leaving 600 without power, said utility director Dan Beans.
PG&E crews were fanning out in evacuated neighborhoods to conduct a crucial re-population task: Cutting off gas lines at burnt-out homes that sit next to homes that were untouched by the fire.
The fire was creating chaos at times along portions of the power grid in Shasta and Trinity counties. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had to evacuate personnel from hydro power plants in both counties, including massive Shasta Dam.
“We’ve been working really hard to keep the power on,” said Reclamation spokeswoman Erin Curtis. “It’s a region-wide issue that we’re dealing with across the fire area.”
Cal Fire said 884 buildings had been destroyed, including 657 homes.
The six people who have died include Melody Bledsoe, 70, and her two great-grandchildren, Emily, 4, and James, 5. The fire has also claimed Redding fire inspector Jeremy Stoke, 37, and private bulldozer operator Don Ray Smith, 81.
A GoFundMe account has been established for the Bledsoe family. A little more than $1,100 had been raised by Sunday afternoon.
Temperatures in Redding were anticipated to remain uncomfortably high: 104 degrees Monday, 105 on Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.
A community meeting was scheduled for 4 p.m. Monday at the Redding Civic Auditorium.