REDDING, Calif. (AP) —The deadly Northern California wildfire that has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes burned virtually unchecked Sunday as fire crews surveyed a small town that was reduced to an ashy moonscape of blackened trees and smoldering rubble.
The death toll climbed to six, and authorities worried that another forecast for high winds could fan the flames even further.
Firefighters endured hot temperatures and remained wary of the possibility of gusty winds, said Anthony Romero, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“Right now it’s going everywhere. We still have a lot of open line,” he said.
He added, “Any event could bring this back up again.”
The National Weather Service on Sunday forecast hot and dry conditions in the area, with wind gusts expected late in the afternoon.
Anna Noland, 49, was evacuated twice in three days before learning through video footage Saturday that the house she last saw under dark and windy skies had burned.
She planned to stay at a shelter at Simpson College in Redding while she searches for another place to live.
“I think I’m still in shock,” Noland said. “It’s just unbelievable knowing you don’t have a house to go back to.”
Noland is among the 38,000 people evacuated after the so-called Carr Fire roared into the outskirts of Redding in Shasta County, leaving five people dead, including two firefighters, a woman and her two great-grandchildren.
“My babies are dead,” Sherry Bledsoe said through tears after she and family members met with Shasta County sheriff’s deputies Saturday.
A vehicle problem ignited the fire Monday, but it wasn’t until Thursday that the fire exploded and raced into communities west of Redding before entering city limits.
On Saturday, it pushed southwest of Redding, the largest city in the region, toward the tiny communities of Ono, Igo and Gas Point, where scorching heat, winds and bone-dry conditions complicated firefighting efforts.
The blaze, which grew slightly Sunday to 139 square miles (360 square kilometers), is the largest fire burning in California. More than 5,000 structures were threatened, and the fire was just 5 percent contained.
The latest tally showed 517 destroyed structures and another 135 damaged, Romero said. A count by The Associated Press found at least 300 of those structures were homes.
The firefighters killed in the blaze included Don Ray Smith, 81, of Pollock Pines, a bulldozer operator who was helping clear vegetation in the path of the wildfire. Redding fire Inspector Jeremy Stoke was also killed, but details of his death were not released.
Sherry Bledsoe’s two children, James Roberts, 5, and Emily Roberts, 4, were stranded with their great-grandmother Melody Bledsoe, 70, when walls of flames swept through the family’s rural property Thursday on the outskirts of Redding.
The three were among more than a dozen people reported missing after the furious wind-driven blaze took residents by surprise and leveled several neighborhoods.
Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said he expects to find several of those people alive and just out of touch with loved ones. Officers have gone to homes of several people reported missing and found cars gone — a strong indication they fled.
Wildfires around the state have forced roughly 50,000 people from their homes, said Lynne Tolmachoff, a Cal Fire spokeswoman.
She said 12,000 firefighters were battling 17 significant fires in California on Sunday.
“We are well ahead of the fire activity we saw last year,” she said. “This is just July, so we’re not even into the worst part of fire season.”
About 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of Redding, two blazes that prompted mandatory evacuations in Mendocino County burned largely unchecked.
The two fires that started Friday destroyed four homes and were threatening more than 4,500 buildings, said Tricia Austin, another Cal Fire spokeswoman. They had consumed 39 square miles (101 square kilometers) and were each 5 percent contained.
“It’s a difficult fire to deal with,” Austin said, noting the weather was hot and the terrain rugged.
Authorities also issued evacuation orders in Napa County, famous for its wine, when a fire destroyed eight structures. The blaze had blackened 150 acres, but was 50 percent contained on Sunday.
Big fires also continued to burn outside Yosemite National Park and in the San Jacinto Mountains east of Los Angeles near Palm Springs. Those fires had burned nearly 100 square miles (260 square kilometers).
Yosemite Valley remained closed to visitors and won’t reopen until Friday.