An explosive wildfire that roared with little warning into a Northern California city claimed a second life and thousands more people abandoned their homes, some of them slipping out just ahead of the walls of flame, authorities said Friday.
In all, an estimated 37,000 people have fled from the so-called Carr Fire, which began Monday and tripled in size overnight Thursday amid scorching temperatures, low humidity and high winds. Fire officials warned that the blaze would probably burn deeper into urban areas before there was any hope of containing it.
A day earlier, the flames turned the sky orange while sweeping through the historic Gold Rush town of Shasta and nearby Keswick, then jumping the Sacramento River into Redding, a city of about 92,000 people and the largest in the region.
A firefighter with the Redding Fire Department was killed in Shasta County, officials said Friday. Another firefighter hired to try to contain the flames with a bulldozer was killed Thursday, authorities said.
At least 65 structures have been destroyed, and 5,000 other buildings were threatened, fire officials said.
The fire is "taking down everything in its path," said Scott McLean, a CalFire spokesman for the crews battling the blaze.
Some Redding residents who had not been under evacuation orders were caught off guard and had to flee with little notice.
"When it hit, people were really scrambling," McLean said. "There was not much of a warning."
The blaze, which was apparently sparked by a mechanical issue involving a vehicle, was so fearsome that fire crews in Redding for a time abandoned any hope of containing the flames and instead focused on saving lives.
"We're not fighting a fire. We're trying to move people out of the path of it because it is now deadly, and it is now moving at speeds and in ways we have not seen before in this area," said Jonathan Cox, battalion chief with Cal Fire.
Some residents drove to hotels or the homes of family members in safer parts of California, while other evacuees poured into a shelter just outside of town.
A reporter with KRCR-TV choked up as she reported live updates about the fire before the station had to go off the air later. Two news anchors told viewers that the building was being evacuated and urged residents to "be safe."
Journalists at the Record Searchlight newspaper tweeted about continuing to report on the fire without electricity in their newsroom, and a reporter at KHSL-TV wrote on Twitter that the station's Redding reporters were "running home to gather their things."
Mike Mangas, a spokesman at Mercy Medical Center, said the hospital was evacuating six babies in its neonatal intensive care unit, which cares for premature newborns, and taking them to medical facilities outside of the area.
Late Thursday, crews found the body of a bulldozer operator who was hired privately to clear vegetation in the blaze's path, McLean said.
The fire burned over the operator and his equipment, making the man the second bulldozer operator killed in a California blaze in less than two weeks.
Three firefighters and an unknown number of civilians had burns, but the extent of their injuries wasn't immediately known, McLean said.
"It's just chaotic. It's wild," he said. "There's a lot of fire, a lot of structures burning."
Firefighters tried in vain to build containment around the blaze Thursday, but flames kept jumping their lines, he said.
Brett Gouvea, incident commander of the crews battling the fire, urged residents to pay close attention to the blaze, which he said was "moving with no regard for what's in its path."
With fire burning in the distance Liz Williams, 33, packed her car Thursday morning, just in case, even though her neighbors said it would never reach them.
When she got home from work, the flames were closing in. By evening, an orange glow appeared on the nearby hillside and ferocious winds picked up. It was time to go.
"I've never experienced something so terrifying in my life. Nothing could prepare you for something like this," Williams said.
She loaded up her 11-year-old daughter and her boyfriend's 9-year-old, but she didn't get far. She was promptly stuck in traffic as all her neighbors crowded the main road out. Cars honked and backed up. Drivers and police yelled at each other.
As flames came down the adjacent hillside, she got aggressive.
"Finally I just went to the left and jumped up on the sidewalk and drove," Williams said.
She estimated that it took an hour to go a little over a mile. She wanted to get as far away as possible, but ultimately stayed with her boyfriend's family in a safer part of town.
"I didn't know if the fire was just going to jump out behind a bush and grab me and suck me in," Williams said. "I wanted out of here."
Steve Hobson was one of the last to leave Lake Redding Drive. A former urban and wild land firefighter three decades ago, he planned to stay behind to save his house. But the heat burned his skin, and the smoke made it hard to breathe. He could feel the fire sucking the air from around him, whipping up swirling embers in a "fire tornado," he said.
Police pounded on doors telling everyone to leave.
The flames on the distant hillside looked like solar flares on the sun, he said. When it came time to flee, he had to punch through walls of burning embers on both sides of the street. A tree fell right in front of him.
"I didn't know if I'd make it so I just got in the middle of the street, went down the middle of the street through the embers and the smoke and made it past," Hobson said.
His perimeter fence burned along with a backyard shed and everything inside it — Christmas ornaments, china and old televisions. But his house made it through the harrowing night.
Meanwhile in the southern part of the state, a man was charged Friday with intentionally starting nine fires, including a wildfire that grew to 11,500 acres Friday morning, forcing thousands of evacuations in Riverside County, NBC Los Angeles reported.
Wildfires throughout the state have burned through tinder-dry brush and forest, forced thousands to evacuate homes and caused campers to pack up their tents at the height of summer. Gov. Jerry Brown declared states of emergency for the three largest fires, which will authorize the state to rally resources to local governments.
A huge forest fire continued to grow outside Yosemite National Park. That blaze killed 36-year-old Braden Varney, a heavy equipment operator for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection whose bulldozer rolled over into a ravine July 14.
AP reporters Noah Berger, Brian Melley, Olga Rodriguez, Alina Hartounian, Marcio Jose Sanchez and John Antczak contributed.