California wildfire: Firefighters gain ground on devastating inferno as victims' families reel from loss

California wildfire: Firefighters gain ground on devastating inferno as victims' families reel from loss

Firefighters in northern California have finally begun gaining ground on the massive wildfire that has claimed at least six lives after doubling over the weekend – fuelled by hot, dry conditions and swift winds that pushed the flames.

As those workers, spread thin by the unrelenting conditions, fight to contain the fire that has left a charred area the size of Denver in its wake, the tragic stories of people trying to save their loved ones have begun to unfold, as at least seven people still remain missing in the region amid thousands of evacuations.

The family of a 70-year-old woman and two children killed by the massive fires, for instance, described the final moments of their loved ones, with the woman trying in vain to save her two great-grandchildren using a wet blanket at their house outside of Redding.

The victims were identified by relatives as James Roberts, five, his sister Emily, four, and their great grandmother, Melody Bledsoe, 70.

Ms Bledsoe’s granddaughter, Amanda Woodley, said on Facebook: “Grandma did everything she could to save them, she was hovered over them both with a wet blanket.

“The family that lives in town are all together mourning three amazing souls. My heart is crushed I can’t believe this is real.”

The children’s mother, Sherry Bledsoe, was quoted by the Sacramento Bee as saying: “My kids are deceased. That’s all I can say.”

Ms Bledsoe’s husband cried as he recalled trying to get back to the house on Thursday after leaving to go to the shop. Ed Bledsoe discovered police had already closed the roads and he was not allowed through. He said he spoke to the children on the phone until they succumbed to the fire.

Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko told a news conference near the city of Redding at the edge of the blaze on Sunday one more person had been killed in a residence consumed by fire, bringing the total to six, including two firefighters. He said the latest victim had not complied with an evacuation order.

Positioned around 150 miles (240 km) north of Sacramento, the Carr Fire is the deadliest of the 90 wildfires burning across the US. Wildfires have blackened 4.4 million acres (1.8 million hectares) of land in total so far this year, around 20 per cent more than the average.

More than 3,000 firefighters battling the Carr Fire had begun to make progress on Sunday afternoon, cutting containment lines around 17 per cent of its perimeter, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Gale force winds that drove the fire into a frenzy last week have eased, but temperatures are again expected to exceed 37.8C, according to the National Weather Service.

Even so, firefighters say they still face difficult conditions on the western flank of the blaze, where the terrain is steep and the air is thick with smoke.

“That’s why we need to fly,” Dominic Polito, who works for the Escondido Fire Department, said in an interview. “We can still use helicopters, but we can’t use the fixed-wing aircraft.”

Firefighting officials on Sunday said they would begin to return people to their homes as soon as possible.

The fire grew rapidly beginning on Thursday, confounding fire officials with the speed of its movement.

All told, nearly 1,000 buildings have been destroyed in the blaze, which has prompted President Donald Trump to issue an emergency declaration that allowed federal money to be spent on efforts to contain the fire. Included in those 1,000 buildings was the entire town of Kenswick, where 450 people live.

Meanwhile, residents have also been rushing to keep their horses and livestock safe from the blaze as it runs through the rugged region known usually as a popular fishing destination.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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