LAKEPORT, Calif. (AP) — A pair of wildfires that prompted evacuation orders for nearly 20,000 people barreled Monday toward small lake towns in Northern California, and authorities faced questions about how quickly they warned residents about the largest and deadliest blaze burning in the state.
Ed Bledsoe told CBS News he did not receive any warning to evacuate his home in the city of Redding before the flames came through last week and killed his wife, Melody, and his great-grandchildren, 5-year-old James Roberts and 4-year-old Emily Roberts.
“If I’d have any kind of warning, I’d have never, ever left my family in that house,” Bledsoe said.
Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko told the network there’s an investigation into whether the Bledsoe home received a warning call or a knock on the door. The sheriff cited evidence that door-to-door notifications were made in the area. Bosenko did not return a message from The Associated Press on Monday.
The dispute came as authorities on Sunday ordered evacuations around twin fires in Mendocino and Lake counties, including from the 4,700-resident town of Lakeport, a popular destination for bass anglers and boaters on the shores of Clear Lake, about 120 miles (195 kilometers) north of San Francisco. The blazes have destroyed seven homes and threaten 10,000 others. So far, the flames have blackened more than 68,000 acres — well over 100 square miles (277 square kilometers) — with minimal containment.
By early evening, the town of Lakeport seemed to be completely deserted, while a few miles away embers, ash and smoke swirled through vineyards where at least one home had gone up in flames. Firefighters set blazes at the bottom of hills in order to burn up the tinder-dry brush before flames cresting the ridge tops could feed on it and surge downhill. A fleet of aircraft made continuous water and fire retardant drops on the blaze.
Those fires were among 17 burning across the state, where fire crews were stretched to the limit.
“We have experienced fires the last four years, and so we’re very aware of what can happen with fires and the damage they can cause,” Lake County Sheriff Lt. Corey Paulich said.
Fire crews also have battled numerous small brushfires this summer, most charring only a few acres but still threatening homes in built-up areas along parched foothills. A 10-acre fire damaged 11 units of an apartment building Monday in Santa Clarita, northwest of Los Angeles, county fire officials said.
Derick Hughes II did not heed the order and remained behind at his property in Nice, California, where he ran sprinklers on his roof and removed yard plants that could catch fire.
The 32-year-old Marine Corps veteran sent his wife and two daughters to safety along with three carloads of belongings. But he said he had too much at stake to leave himself. He bought his three-bedroom house last year using a loan from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“This is everything I bled for, and I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am, and I’m just not willing to give it up so easily,” he said over the phone. “Some people may think that’s selfish of me, and I have insurance. But the way things go, I’d rather not start over.”
Hughes said about five of his neighbors also disobeyed the evacuation text alert they got Sunday evening to protect their homes and keep looters out.
Farther north, police said five people were arrested on suspicion of entering areas evacuated due to the explosive wildfire around Redding.
That blaze is now believed to be the ninth most destructive in state history, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Scott McLean said.
The blaze, which killed two firefighters and four civilians including two children, has now destroyed 818 homes and 311 outbuildings and damaged 165 homes, McLean said.
More than 27,000 people remained evacuated from their homes although another 10,000 were allowed to return Monday as fire crews reinforced lines on the western end of the blaze.
Fire officials were hopeful that they could make progress containing the blaze, which was 23 percent contained.
The fire’s northwestern end continued to be active.
“It’s still putting up a fight,” McLean said.
The fire that threatened Redding — a city of about 92,000 — was ignited by a vehicle problem a week ago about 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of the city. On Thursday, it swept through the historic Gold Rush town of Shasta and nearby Keswick, fueled by gusty winds and dry vegetation. It then jumped the Sacramento River and took out subdivisions on the western edge of Redding.
“It wasn’t expected to travel that far that fast,” Mclean said.
The fire slowed down as winds subsided, and crews were able to get into neighborhoods to prevent embers from taking out additional homes, he said.
Bledsoe said he did not know his home was in danger when he left his wife and great grandchildren to run an errand on Thursday. He said he received a phone call from his wife 15 minutes after he left saying he needed to get home because the fire was approaching. He said one of the children told him the blaze was at the back door. When he tried to return, the road was blocked and flames prevented him from returning on foot.
The sheriff has said the fire was moving fast, but authorities still alerted residents in a variety of ways, including going door-to-door and using loudspeakers on emergency vehicles.
Authorities also use electronic warning systems, including an emergency alert system that is repeated by local news media and an automated calling system that can be targeted to phones within a geographic area. Another method known as the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System can be directed to any cellphone within reach of a particular transmission tower, said Sherry Bartolo, operations manager for the Shasta County dispatch center.
The drawback of the automated calling system is that it is designed to dial landlines, but cellphone users must register their phones if they are to receive alerts, she said.
The dispatch center put out more than 18 emergency alerts between Thursday evening and midday Friday, Bartolo said.
The center usually has eight dispatchers on duty, but overnight Thursday had at least 12, along with four supervisors and three managers who worked through the night, she said.
Thanawala reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Lorin Eleni Gill and Olga Rodriguez also contributed to this report.