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Carr Fire death toll climbs to six as crews ‘gain some ground’ against massive blaze

The Carr Fire in Redding, Calif., has killed five people after a malfunctioning vehicle set off flames on July 23. (Video: Nani Sahra Walker, Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

They found the children’s bodies under a wet blanket. 

For days, family members had combed evacuation shelters, praying for a sign that Melody Bledsoe and her granddaughter’s children had survived the Carr Fire.

Search crews, meanwhile, sifted through the ashes of what used to be the family’s neighborhood in Redding, Calif., looking for something much worse.

On Saturday, authorities called relatives into the sheriff’s office with news of the search’s grim conclusion — and details of a matriarch’s final, futile act.

“Grandma did everything she could to save them she was hovered over them both with a wet blanket,” Amanda Woodley wrote on Facebook shortly afterward.

They were the latest identified victims of California’s Carr Fire, a blaze covering more than 95,000 acres that has killed six people and twice doubled in size.

Emily Roberts was 4. Her brother, James Roberts Jr., was 5. Their great-grandmother, Bledsoe, was 70. Their family hadn’t heard from them since receiving desperate phone calls Thursday night, saying the flames were getting closer.

“The family that lives in town are all together mourning 3 amazing souls,” Woodley wrote. “My heart is crushed i can’t believe this is real i just keep seeing all of their beautiful faces.”

While some families mourned loved ones, others returned to destroyed homes and confronted a different kind of loss.

John and Michelle Harrington tried to reach her home in Redding on Sunday but were blocked.

“I guess we’ll have to wait and see later,” Michelle Harrington said as she surveyed what she described as a war zone.

A few minutes later, the couple got to Michelle’s sister’s house just west of the Redding city limits, near Highway 299.

“Where do you start when you see this?” she said, surveying the smoldering rubble. “How do you tell the kids? Look, there’s their play structure among all this damage.”

Harrington said her sister, Lynsey Mitchell, had just finished a fight against Stage 3 breast cancer and was working to restore her home.

“You have to look and say ‘Okay, I guess we start with a clean slate,’ ” Harrington said while taking iPhone pictures of the charred property.

Ten miles to the west, in the rugged terrain above French Gulch, Kim May said she lost her ranch late Friday after surviving the initial fire that raced past her neighbors last Tuesday.

“I told my neighbors, who are loggers, that when they left, I’d leave,” she said.

May evacuated to the town of French Gulch on Friday, and when she returned to her ranch early Saturday morning, she said it was a shambles.

“This fire was angry. I’m a country girl, and I hunt for a living, and I didn’t recognize my own driveway. It was a war zone.”

The Carr Fire has destroyed 517 structures and threatens 5,000 more, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. But officials say they’re “starting to gain some ground.”

Cal Fire’s Brett Gouvea told reporters that crews are feeling “a lot more optimistic” and expect to see containment rise from 5 percent. As of Sunday night, the fire was 17 percent contained.

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)

Redding Fire Inspector Jeremy Stoke and Don Ray Smith, a privately hired bulldozer operator, were killed trying to contain the blaze.

The Shasta County Sheriff’s Office declined to release or confirm the name of the sixth victim.

Authorities say the fire was sparked by a malfunctioning vehicle on July 23.

California crews are battling 17 large blazes totaling more than 200,000 acres, a National Park Service official said.

Firefighters have been attacking the Ferguson blaze near Yosemite National Park since July 13. The fire has consumed more than 53,000 acres and was 30 percent contained on Saturday night, according to the U.S. Forest Service. A bulldozer operator was killed in the blaze, which is mostly confined to rugged terrain where there are no roads, and a firefighter was killed on Sunday.

And firefighters say a lack of resources is hampering the battle against two fires that together make up the Mendocino Complex. Both started on Friday, a little more than an hour apart.

An 11,000-acre fire that started off Old River Road has destroyed four homes and one outbuilding but not resulted in any deaths, according to Cal Fire. And nearby, the Ranch Fire northeast of Ukiah had spread to more than 13,000 acres.

Williams reported from Redding.

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