'It's moving faster than we can': Firefighter dead, thousands evacuated as fire hits Redding, California

REDDING, Calif. – A local firefighter was killed Friday as an explosive, fast-moving wildfire jumped the Sacramento River and roared into this northern California city. It was the second death blamed on the wind-driven blaze.

Cal Fire spokesman Jonathon Cox said firefighting agencies were in “evacuation and life-saving mode” right now.

“This fire is moving at such speed and at such intensity that it’s moving faster than we can,” he said. “This thing is progressing faster than firefighting troops can keep up with.”

A Cal Fire spokesman said the firefighter from the Redding Fire Department was killed fighting the blaze in Shasta County. A privately hired bulldozer operator was also killed while fighting to contain the blaze. At least three firefighters have been injured.

The residents of Shasta Lake, a city of 10,000 north of Redding, were ordered to evacuate overnight with little warning as the fire destroyed homes in the communities of Shasta, Keswick and the west side of Redding, a city of about 92,000 people.

At one point, as the blaze pushed into Redding late Thursday, TV anchors providing live coverage on KRCR-TV had to abandon their studios because of the threat.

“Right now we are being evacuated,” anchor Allison Woods told viewers. “We are going to leave the station because it is now unsafe to be here.”

Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean says the blaze, called the Carr Fire, killed a privately hired bulldozer operator who was fighting to contain the blaze. Three firefighters were also injured, he said.

At least 65 structures were destroyed, according to Cal Fire. As of Thursday afternoon, the blaze had consumed about 70 square miles and is just 3 percent contained.

The fire is believed to have started Monday in the Gold Rush-era hamlet of French Gulch after a vehicle problem ignited the blaze on Monday. Driven by high winds, it exploded overnight Thursday and continued its swift march toward heavily populated areas.

Whiskeytown, a once vibrant and bustling mining community southeast of French Gulch, was destroyed as the fire marched toward Redding. A state parks official says employees worked feverishly to save historic artifacts from a Northern California gold rush-era museum threatened by wildfire.

McLean, a spokesman for the crews battling the blaze in Shasta County, called the fire "very dynamic" and said it is "taking everything down in its path.”

Shasta County fire chief Mike Hebrard said the fire was pushed by wind being sucked in from the coast,  said.

“What we have is a condition here where it’s 110 degrees in the valley; it’s 60 degrees on the coast. The hot air rises, the air sucks in and those are the winds we are getting about 7 to 8 o’clock every night. And it is pushing that fire basically to the east, to the north,” Hebrard said.

Driven by the high winds, the fire late Thursday managed to jump the Sacramento River that, along with the Keswick Reservoir north, usually provides a 15-mile long water barrier all the way to Shasta Dam.

In west Redding, which caught the first flames as the fire moved east, residents who hadn’t been under evacuation orders were caught off guard and had to flee with little notice, causing miles-long traffic jams as flames turned the skies orange.

In north Redding, traffic signals were out and the highway patrol were out in force to stop anyone from driving downtown.

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in all of Shasta County.

The weather will continue to be a challenge for firefighters all weekend.

The National Weather Service issued an excessive heat warning Thursday, as the temperature reached a hot, sticky and smoky 112 degrees. The high was expected to hit 110 Friday and 109 through Sunday.

Authorities urged residents to evacuate when ordered and to pack clothes, important documents, medicines, cellphone chargers and other materials. Be prepared to be away from home for two to three days, said Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko.

“People who refuse to evacuate not only put themselves and family in danger, they are putting fire personnel in danger,” he said.

Sharon Stapleton, 71, of Shasta said she and her husband, Ken, were awakened around 3 a.m. by police who came to their door to tell them to evacuate.

"There was no thinking about it," she said, adding she and her husband quickly loaded up their Jeep and their motor home with what they could get their hands on.

"I grabbed a pillow, two T-shirts, a pair of pants, shoes, my purse and a few meds," she said.

She and her husband also took their two dogs, Lilly and Allie, as well as some dog food and a small safe with important papers. Then they left.

Meanwhile, Oak Bottom Marina on Whiskeytown Lake was destroyed.

“The only buildings left standing are the fire station and a couple of restrooms,” Hebrard said. “The concession stands are burned up.”

About 40 boats at the marina were destroyed, he said. Others were released from their moorings and set adrift on the lake.


• A wildfire in the San Jacinto Mountains of Southern California has grown to 18 square miles. Authorities say just 3 percent of the fire’s perimeter is contained Friday morning. The fire allegedly was intentionally set Wednesday and quickly spread through timber and brush near the town of Idyllwild and other communities about 100 miles of Los Angeles.More than 4,900 structures are threatened and an estimated 6,000 people have been evacuated.

• In the Sierra Nevada, the Ferguson Fire continues to grow just outside Yosemite National Park. Authorities say it is now nearly 72 square miles, but containment has increased to 29 percent. Yosemite Valley and the Wawona and Mariposa Grove areas of the national park remain closed.

Jenny Espino and Jim Schultz report for the Redding (Calif.) Record Searchlight; Stanglin reports from McLean,Va.; Contributing: Associated Press