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‘This fire is extremely dangerous and moving with no regard’: Two people killed battling California wildfire

Officials said the Carr Fire in Northern California, which started July 23 and has tripled in size, was caused by a mechanical issue involving a vehicle. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Update: Read the latest story about the Carr Fire

REDDING, Calif. — Jimmy Kunkel came home from a trip Thursday night to find a panicked scene in his neighborhood. The power was out, and police on the darkened street were using a loudspeaker, “telling people to leave right now,” he said.

A rapidly growing wildfire was raging across Northern California, imperiling many people in this city of more than 91,000. Now, the fire was approaching Kunkel’s neighborhood. He grabbed what he could in the dark and fled north.

“There’s just the sheer panic of, ‘Do I have everything?’” said Kunkel, a teacher and football coach at Shasta High School. “And ‘Is my house going to make it?’”

Kunkel joined the scores of people forced from home as the devastating Carr Fire swept across the region. Authorities described the blaze as menacing and unmerciful; as of Saturday morning, it had killed two people who were battling the flames, destroyed 500 structures, damaged another 75 and threatened nearly 5,000 thousands more.

“This fire is extremely dangerous and moving with no regard to what’s in its path,” Cal Fire Chief Brett Gouvea said.

The Carr Fire began Monday afternoon and was caused by a vehicle’s mechanical failure, Cal Fire reported. Its growth was explosive, fueled by strong winds, low humidity and scorching temperatures.

Cal Fire said the blaze “became very active” Thursday night leading into Friday. On Thursday morning, it was burning across 20,000 acres, fire officials said. Within 24 hours, it had doubled in size, spreading across an area the size of the District of Columbia.

The fire was 5 percent contained Saturday morning.

“Firefighters continue to work aggressively to build containment lines around the Carr Fire,” the agency said in a statement. “Their efforts have been hampered overnight due to extreme fire behavior and challenging wind conditions.”

These dangerous conditions were expected to continue through Friday night. The National Weather Service said a red flag warning — which indicates a heightened fire risk — would remain in effect through midnight, with gusting winds and low humidity expected to fuel a “dangerous and rapid spread” of fire. Temperatures also crept toward the triple digits on Friday. All of this combined to create an environment that “can contribute to extreme fire behavior,” the Weather Service said.

Forecasts for the weekend said temperatures could approach 110 degrees on Saturday and Sunday, the Weather Service said.

Climate change is supercharging a hot and dangerous summer

The fire created an apocalyptic scene around Redding and beyond, cloaking the sky in a haunting orange glow streaked by plumes of smoke. Authorities said they had dispatched more than 1,700 fire personnel, including dozens of fire crews, more than 100 fire engines along with bulldozers, helicopters and vehicles to deliver water.

A firefighter from Redding and a privately hired bulldozer operator were killed as a result of the Carr Fire, California officials reported.

Neither was identified.

“The operator was working on an active section of the Carr Fire,” Gouvea, the incident commander, said at a news briefing. “The fire community is extremely heartbroken for this loss.”

Marin County reported that three of its firefighters working on defending structures were burned on their ears, face and hands by a sudden, scorching blast of heat. All three were released from the hospital, with one expected to receive an additional evaluation. Gouvea also said civilians had been injured, although authorities did not immediately provide further details.

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has declared a state of emergency in Shasta County, where Redding sits, and in other counties where the state battled multiple raging fires.

The Ferguson Fire, which forced officials to close the Yosemite Valley through at least the weekend, had burned across more than 45,000 acres and was 29 percent contained as of Saturday morning. The Cranston Fire in Riverside County had burned across 12,300 acres and was 16 percent contained, officials said.

The Carr Fire that streaked across Northern California closed streets and emptied neighborhoods. Power went out at the Record Searchlight newspaper, while the news station KRCR had to evacuate its offices for a period of time.

In Redding, about two hours south of the Oregon border, officials ordered some residents to evacuate and warned others to remain vigilant, saying “the situation may change rapidly and unexpectedly.” Late Thursday, the city said its electric utility would be shutting down power to most of north Redding at the request of fire authorities “and to maintain system stability due to multiple line outages.”

Residents described a sense of confusion as the fire continued to burn closer. Amber Bollman said she and her husband, Tim, received mandatory evacuation notices at their home near the Sacramento River — followed by notices saying they did not have to leave their home, but should be prepared to do so.

“We have about 10 firefighters who live in the neighborhood and they were saying as long as it didn’t jump the river, we’d be safe,” Bollman said. “We know [the fire personnel] were doing their best, but there was definitely a lack of communication about how rapidly it was coming.”

They packed up some of their things and headed east to her parent’s house in Shingletown. Tim and his 14-year-old son, Jack, went back for more. With Jack recording video, they followed fire personnel out of their neighborhood and saw flames surrounding the truck as they left, she said.

“They barely made it out,” she said.

During a press conference Friday afternoon, Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said officials used multiple methods to let residents know about evacuation notices, including going door to door, but were battling misinformation coming from other sources.

“It is extremely difficult to get the word out, especially with social media. Some people may be well intentioned, but they’re really putting out inaccurate information that then fuels fears and causes distractions for public safety officials,” he said. “We’re trying to work out well ahead of the fire to do those evacuations to give ample time for those firefighting personnel to help fight the fire. If they’re coming in with their engines and dozers and people are trying to get out it can create a life-threatening situation.”

On Friday morning, Amber Bollman said they found out that their home had been lost.

“You get as much as you can, you get out with your life, but your home is so much a part of you that you can’t replace,” she said. “It’s material, but we have nothing. We have our lives and family and friends, but we just feel lost.”

Others awaited word on what happened to their homes. Michelle Harrington, who lives near the Bollmans, was not sure if her house was still standing Friday. Harrington echoed Bollman in saying she felt like the warnings were delayed, saying she “didn’t get the evacuation notice until I was on the road.”

Harrington, a teacher, and her husband, John, packed things up in their car on Thursday afternoon. They were watching the evening news after 6 p.m. when her sister texted that flames were coming over the ridge.

“We opened the garage door and it was like a hurricane; the trees were bent over and garbage cans were blowing down the street,” Harrington said. “I thought we were going to die. I didn’t know if we were going to get out of there.”

They escaped to her parent’s house on the east side of Redding. Without knowing what happened to their home, Harrington said they have begun wondering what they do next.

“We’re already thinking long term – where do you go? How long before we have a home again?’ she asked.

Kunkel, the football coach who fled Redding, went with his roommate to a friend’s house in Lakehead, about half an hour north of the city. On Friday morning, Kunkel returned home unsure of what he would discover.

“I went back up into the neighborhood just to see things and it’s a ghost town,” Kunkel said.

He found out that he was among the lucky ones: His house was still standing. Still, he worried about the danger still posed by the fire.

“There’s houses still smoldering,” he said, “and plenty of green stuff still to burn if the fire comes back this way.”

Berman reported from Washington. Jason Samenow in Washington contributed to this report, which has been updated since it was first published.

Further reading:

The grim scope of 2017’s California wildfire season is now clear. The danger’s not over.