Northern California’s massive wildfires, some now two weeks old, continued to consume timber, threaten homes and take lives this weekend, with no sure end in sight.
Several thousand firefighters battling the Carr and Mendocino blazes and a host of lesser conflagrations gained more ground on Sunday and Cal Fire officials were saying they’re hopeful their troops are headed toward greater containment before triple-digit temperatures return midweek.
“They want to make sure we get the upper hand on these fires because we’re looking at warmer temperatures,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynnette Round said Sunday afternoon. “They are looking to get things contained.”
The Carr Fire in Shasta County, already the sixth most devastating fire in state history in terms of structural damage, claimed a seventh human victim Saturday.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
Jairus Ayeta, a 21-year-old Pacific Gas and Electric apprentice lineman, was killed in a vehicle accident while working in a wilderness area near Redding.
“Crews in a remote area with dangerous terrain were performing (power) restoration work when a crew member suffered an accident and a fatal injury in western Shasta County,” PG&E spokesman J.D. Guidi said Sunday morning.
Guidi said PG&E is working with local law enforcement officials to investigate the circumstances of the death, which occurred at about 6 p.m.
In a 2015 Facebook posting, Uganda native Ayeta, who more recently lived in Antelope in the Sacramento area, expressed pride in choosing his occupation as a utility worker.
“Working for a power company made me realize I made the best decision of my life,” he wrote. “Every day’s something new.”
A GoFundMe page was established Saturday evening with the goal of raising $60,000 for his family. Coworkers described him as an upbeat worker who did his job well.
“Jay was one of the best apprentices I’ve seen and instantly liked among our crews, great hand. Gonna miss you buddy,” one coworker, Dustin Baker, wrote.
The Carr Fire was started by a recreation trailer malfunction July 23 in the Whiskeytown area west of Redding, according to the National Park Service, the lead investigative agency. Officials on Sunday declined to offer further details of the fire cause.
Others killed in the Carr Fire are Don Ray Smith, 81, of Pollock Pines, a private bulldozer operator killed while trying to contain the flames; fire inspector Jeremy Stoke, a Redding firefighter since 2004 who was killed battling the fire; and 70-year-old Melody Bledsoe and her great-grandchildren Emily, 4, and James, 5. Another victim, found in a burned home, hasn’t been identified.
The Carr Fire had consumed more than 160,000 acres, much of it wilderness, as of Sunday evening, according to Cal Fire. But its claim to infamy will be the number of structures it destroyed. As of Sunday, state officials counted 1,600 buildings completely destroyed, more than 1,000 of them homes, many in the western neighborhoods of Redding.
As of Sunday night, the Carr Fire was reported 43 percent contained.
Cal Fire reported 18 large wildfires active in the state as of Sunday, consuming an estimated 873 square miles of land. Many of them have been burning for days and even weeks. Some 17,000 homes were listed as at risk statewide Sunday.
The Carr fire fire forced evacuation last week of more than 40,000 people in Shasta and Trinity counties. Most of those people have been allowed to return home in recent days. More were allowed home on Sunday in the Keswick area northwest of Redding, not far from the fire’s origination point.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced on Sunday it is making federal disaster assistance available for victims of California fires from July 23 forward. That help includes funds for temporary housing, home repairs and loans for uninsured property loss, according to FEMA.
The two major fires burning near each other in Mendocino County grew sharply overnight Saturday and Sunday to 255,000 acres by Sunday morning, making the pair — called the Ranch and River fires — together the fifth-largest fire in state history in terms of acres burned. As of Sunday, the pair had destroyed 68 homes and 62 other buildings.
Large areas of Lake County, north and west of Clear Lake, including along the lake’s north shore, remained under mandatory evacuation Sunday. Some areas of western Colusa County also were under evacuations orders, and an advisory evacuation notice was in effect for a section of west Glenn County.
But fire crews made good progress setting bulldozer fire breaks on both fires throughout the day Sunday, Cal Fire spokesman Will Powers said.
Residents were allowed back in to portions of the North Lakeport neighborhood on Clear Lake’s west shore at noon Sunday. A portion of Highway 20 north of the lake also was reopened.
Cal Fire reported those fires were 33 percent contained Sunday morning and projected full containment to occur within 10 days.
National Weather Service forecasters said another streak of 100-degree-plus days is likely to hit Sacramento, Redding and Clear Lake areas by Wednesday, continuing to make firefighting tricky.
Several smaller fires gained legs in the foothills and mountains southeast of Sacramento over the weekend.
Cal Fire and local crews also were fighting a 135-acre brush fire Sunday near the foothills area of Vallecito in Calaveras County, off Parrott’s Ferry Road.
Officials issued an evacuation advisory at noon for residents of the Live Oak subdivision, Batton Road and Green Meadows. The fire at the time was only 5 percent contained, but was burning within fire-retardant retention lines that had been dropped by firefighting aircraft.
“There are scattered (residential) parcels in the area, but they are at least a mile away,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Emily Kilgore said. The evacuation is an alert to area residents to be prepared in case an evacuation is required. “You don’t have to leave, but maybe start thinking about getting yourself ready.”
Another fire, the Donnell Fire near Donnell Lake and the middle fork of the Stanislaus River - off of Highway 108 in Stanislaus National Forest - burst into life over the weekend after a slow burn for several days, consuming nearly 6,000 acres. No containment was reported as of Sunday afternoon.
“It’s making some pretty good runs this afternoon,” said Manuel Madrigal, a federal firefighting spokesman. “We can’t get aircraft up there to get a good feel for where it is moving. “