Death toll mounts as wildfires rage across California

Jul 29, 2018 | 9:30 PM
| Redding, Calif

The death toll from the state’s wildfires continued to mount Sunday, with eight fatalities now reported from blazes burning in Shasta County and near Yosemite National Park.

In Mariposa County, where firefighters have spent weeks battling the Ferguson fire, officials reported that a firefighter based at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks died after being struck by a falling tree. Meanwhile, crews attacking the Carr fire in and around Redding said they had located another body — the fourth civilian to perish in that blaze — and reported that hundreds more structures were destroyed.

(L.A. Times Graphics)

 

Firefighters are battling 17 wildfires across the state, which have consumed more than 200,000 acres combined in terrain stretching from Southern California to the Oregon border, said Jonathan Cox, battalion chief and information officer with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. With so many burning near populated areas, “resources are obviously stretched thin,” he said.

“We’ve had 17 fires before,” Cox said. “But these are impacting communities — and they’re large fires, not small.”

About 12,000 firefighters have responded to the wildfires from within California. Another 800 personnel have been deployed by the California National Guard. And 150 fire engines were on the way from as far away as Florida, officials said Sunday. “There’s a finite number of resources in California, and obviously we’re employing them at the highest-priority incidents,” Cox said.

The Carr fire — the largest wildfire currently burning — has consumed more than 95,000 acres, destroyed 874 structures — including 657 residential structures — and damaged 175 others. Six people, including a 70-year-old woman and two of her great-grandchildren, ages 4 and 5, were killed in the fast-moving fire. Two belonged to the crews fighting the fire. Authorities were also investigating seven missing persons cases.

The devastation astounded Shasta County Supervisor Leonard Moty, who represents much of the area that burned. “I’ve been a lifelong resident of this community. I’ve never seen a fire with such destruction here in this area ever before,” said Moty, appearing at a news conference with other public safety officials.

One of those who experienced the destruction firsthand was Redding resident Hannalora Lewis, who was woken up by her mother Thursday morning and told to evacuate.

While her parents grabbed photos and corralled their dogs, the 16-year-old scooped up her phone, an outfit and a new pair of sneakers she bought while back-to-school shopping. She said she almost grabbed a box of mementos — trinkets, diaries, ticket stubs from her favorite movies — but then thought it would take up too much room in the car.

Within days, she learned the family’s house had been destroyed. “I didn’t think for a second that we would lose our home,” she said.

Firefighters on Sunday offered their first optimistic assessment of their battle against the Carr fire, which has forced more than 38,000 residents to evacuate. Cal Fire unified incident commander Bret Gouvea said cooler temperatures and increased humidity had given firefighters a window of opportunity to attack the massive fire.

The blaze, which was 17% contained Sunday evening, was mostly burning north into remote and inaccessible areas. Fire crews also managed to halt the spread of the Carr fire within the city of Redding, Gouvea said.

“We’ve had no movement on the fire over the last day inside the city limits, so things are looking very good,” he added.

Craig Shoemaker, a meteorologist in the National Weather Service’s Sacramento office, said temperatures right over the fire are expected to reach highs of up to 105 degrees Monday, a few degrees cooler than it would have been without thick smoke acting as a cloud cover.

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“An incredible amount of smoke has been put into the air, and that’s helping to hold down temperatures a little bit,” said Tom Dang, another meteorologist with the weather service.

While the smoke provided some relief for crews on the ground, it complicated the aerial assault on the fire being waged by helicopters and air tankers, limiting their visibility. “There’s a lot of low-level smoke, which means missions are having to be aborted,” said Cox, the Cal Fire spokesman.

Investigators said Sunday they had recovered the body of a sixth person from the Carr fire. Although he declined to identify the person, Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said the latest fire victim had been in a location where residents had been told to clear out for their safety.

“We have confirmed that the person did receive evacuation notices and did not evacuate,” he said.

Officials also said there have now been two fatalities in the Ferguson fire, which has consumed more than 54,000 acres near Yosemite. That fire, which started July 13, claimed the life of a Cal Fire bulldozer operator, whose vehicle tumbled down a hillside during the building of a defensive line.

On Sunday, Brian Hughes, captain of the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshots, was killed when he was struck by a tree while he and his team were setting a backfire in an area with many dead trees on the east side of the fire, according to the National Park Service. He was treated at the scene but died before he could be taken to a hospital. He was 33.

Hughes, who was originally from Hilo, Hawaii, had worked with the Arrowhead hotshots for four years. They are an elite crew of 20 firefighters based at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

“They go into the steepest of the steep, the most rugged of the rugged areas,” said Mike Theune, a spokesman with the parks. The Arrowhead team, one of two hotshot crews within the National Park Service, was working on a two-week rotation when Hughes was killed, he said.

“The team at Sequoia and Kings National Parks is devastated by this terrible news,” parks Supt. Woody Smeck said in a statement. “Our deepest condolences go out to the firefighter’s family and loved ones. We grieve this loss with you.”

The Ferguson fire has left seven others injured. Yosemite National Park remains closed while thousands of structures are threatened.

In Mendocino County, two other wind-driven wildfires had grown to more than 30,000 acres by Sunday evening, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate. The Ranch and River fires, known together as the Mendocino complex fires, began Friday afternoon and exploded over the weekend, destroying six homes as residents in Mendocino County and some neighboring Lake County communities were told to flee, Cal Fire officials said.

Authorities said 10,200 structures were threatened. By Sunday evening, the Mendocino complex fires were 10% contained.

Vives reported from Redding and Zahniser, Jennings and Tchekmedyian from Los Angeles.

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