Thousands of people have fled their homes after wildfires surged to near a small lake town in northern California as crews, stretched to their limits across the state, fight flames that have claimed the lives of both firefighters and civilians.
Residents of the waterfront town of Lakeport fled on Sunday after a major flare-up of two fires that combined across Mendocino and Lake counties destroyed at least four homes. Lakeport, home to about 5,000, is around 120 miles (192km) north of San Francisco.
More than 4,500 buildings were under threat, officials said. The two fires had blackened 47 sq miles (122 sq km), with minimal containment.
About 100 miles north-east, officials near Redding struck a hopeful tone for the first time in days as a massive fire slowed after days of explosive growth.
The county sheriff, Tom Bosenko, said authorities found a sixth victim of the blaze at a home that was consumed by flames, though he declined to say where. The victim’s identity was not released. The sheriff’s department was also investigating seven missing person reports, Bosenko said. Redding police have an additional 11 reports of missing people, though many of them may simply not have checked in with friends or family, said Redding police’s Sgt Todd Cogle.
The latest tally showed at least 657 homes destroyed and another 145 damaged, with the fire, had consumed 149 sq miles. Keswick, a mountain town of about 450 people, was reduced to an ashy moonscape of blackened trees and smoldering rubble. “My babies are dead,” Sherry Bledsoe said through tears after she and family members met on Saturday with sheriff’s deputies.
Her two children, five-year-old James Roberts and four-year-old Emily Roberts, were stranded with their great-grandmother, Melody Bledsoe, 70, when flames swept through the family’s rural property on Thursday on the outskirts of Redding.
The sixth victim, who was not identified, did not evacuate despite receiving a warning, Bosenko said. It is the largest fire burning in California, threatening more than 5,000 structures. The flames were just 5% contained, though Gouvea said he expected that number to climb.