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'Extremely dangerous and moving with no regard': Two people killed battling wildfire

Smoke shrouds the Merced River in California’s Yosemite National Park, July 26, 2018. Thousands of tourists were evacuated a day earlier as one of the country’s most iconic natural preserves was blanketed with thick smoke from a 38,000-acre fire that has burned for nearly two weeks. (Jim Wilson/Copyright 2018 The New York Times)

REDDING, Calif. - Jimmy Kunkel came home Thursday night to find a panicked scene. A rapidly growing wildfire was raging across northern California, potentially imperiling many people in this city of more than 91,000. Kunkel found the power out at his home and police on the darkened street using a loudspeaker "telling people to leave right now," he said.

The fire was coming. Kunkel grabbed what he could in the dark and fled north.

"There's just the sheer panic of, 'Do I have everything?' " said Kunkel, a teacher and football coach at Shasta High School. "And 'Is my house going to make it?' "

Kunkel joined the scores of other people forced from home as the devastating Carr Fire swept across this region. Authorities described the fire - which more than doubled in size between Thursday and Friday - as menacing and unmerciful. The fire has killed two people who were battling the flames, destroyed 65 structures, damaged another 55 and threatened thousands more.

"This fire is extremely dangerous and moving with no regard to what's in its path," Cal Fire Chief Brett Gouvea said.

The Carr Fire began Monday afternoon and was caused by the "mechanical failure" of a vehicle, Cal Fire reported, although the agency did not elaborate. Its growth was explosive, fueled by strong winds, low humidity and scorching temperatures, authorities said.

On Thursday morning, the blaze was burning across 20,000 acres, fire officials said. Within 24 hours, it had spread across an area the size of the District of Columbia.

Cal Fire said the fire "became very active" throughout Thursday night leading into Friday.

"Firefighters continue to work aggressively to build containment lines around the Carr Fire," the agency said in a statement. "Their efforts have been hampered overnight due to extreme fire behavior and challenging wind conditions."

These dangerous conditions were expected to continue through Friday night. The National Weather Service said a red flag warning - which indicates a heightened fire risk - would remain in effect through midnight, with gusting winds and low humidity expected to potentially fuel a "dangerous and rapid spread" of fire. Temperatures also crept toward the triple digits on Friday. All of this combined to create conditions that "can contribute to extreme fire behavior," the Weather Service said.

Forecasts for the weekend said temperatures could approach 110 degrees on Saturday and Sunday, the Weather Service said.

The fire created an apocalyptic scene around Redding and beyond, cloaking the sky in a haunting orange glow streaked by plumes of smoke. Authorities said they had dispatched more than 1,700 fire personnel, including dozens of fire crews, more than 100 fire engines along with bulldozers, helicopters and vehicles to deliver water.

At least two of these responding personnel were killed, officials said. A firefighter from the city of Redding was killed as a result of the Carr Fire, California officials said in a statement Friday. The firefighter would not be identified until the next of kin was notified, and authorities did not release further details.

A privately hired bulldozer operator was killed while battling the fire, Cal Fire reported, although this person was also not immediately identified while their next of kin was contacted.

"The operator was working on an active section of the Carr Fire," Gouvea, the incident commander, said at a news briefing. "The fire community is extremely heartbroken for this loss."

Marin County reported that three of its firefighters working on defending structures were burned on their ears, face and hands by a sudden, scorching blast of heat. All three were released from the hospital, with one expected to received an additional evaluation. Gouvea also said civilians had been injured, although authorities did not immediately provide further details.

Gov. Jerry Brown, D, has declared a state of emergency in Shasta County, where Redding sits. Brown warned that Carr fire "continues to threaten critical infrastructure" and said "high temperatures, low humidity, and erratic winds have further increased the spread of this fire."

He also declared emergencies in other counties as the state battled multiple raging fires. The Ferguson Fire, which forced officials to close the Yosemite Valley through at least the weekend, had burned across more than 45,000 acres and was 29 percent contained as of Friday morning. The Cranston Fire in Riverside County had burned across 11,500 acres and was 3 percent contained at the same time, officials said.

The Carr Fire that streaked across northern California closed streets and emptied neighborhoods. Power went out at the Record Searchlight newspaper, while the news station KRCR had to evacuate its offices for a period of time.

In Redding, about two hours south of the Oregon border, officials ordered some residents to evacuate and warned others to remain vigilant, saying "the situation may change rapidly and unexpectedly." Late Thursday, the city said its electric utility would be shutting down power to most of north Redding at the request of fire authorities "and to maintain system stability due to multiple line outages."

Residents described a sense of confusion as the fire continued to burn closer. Amber Bollman said she and her husband, Tim, received mandatory evacuation notices at their home near the Sacramento River - followed by notices saying they did not have to leave their home, but should be prepared to do so.

"We have about 10 firefighters who live in the neighborhood and they were saying as long as it didn't jump the river, we'd be safe," Bollman said. "We know [the fire personnel] were doing their best, but there was definitely a lack of communication about how rapidly it was coming."

They packed up some of their things and headed east to her parent's house in Shingletown. Tim and his 14-year-old son, Jack, went back for more. With Jack recording video, they followed fire personnel out of their neighborhood and saw flames surrounding the truck as they left, she said.

"They barely made it out," she said.

On Friday morning, Amber Bollman said they found out that their home had been lost.

"You get as much as you can, you get out with your life, but your home is so much a part of you that you can't replace," she said. "It's material, but we have nothing. We have our lives and family and friends, but we just feel lost."

Others awaited word on what happened to their homes. Michelle Harrington, who lives near the Bollmans, was not sure if her house was still standing Friday. Harrington echoed Bollman in saying she felt like the warnings were delayed, saying she "didn't get the evacuation notice until I was on the road."

Harrington, a teacher, and her husband, John, packed things up in their car on Thursday afternoon. They were watching the evening news after 6 p.m. when her sister texted that flames were coming over the ridge.

"We opened the garage door and it was like a hurricane; the trees were bent over and garbage cans were blowing down the street," Harrington said. "I thought we were going to die. I didn't know if we were going to get out of there."

They escaped to her parent's house on the east side of Redding. Without knowing what happened to their home, Harrington said they have begun wondering what they do next.

"We're already thinking long term - where do you go? How long before we have a home again?' she asked.

Kunkel, the football coach who fled Redding, went with his roommate to a friend's house in Lakehead, about half an hour north of the city. On Friday morning, Kunkel returned home unsure of what he would discover.

"I went back up into the neighborhood just to see things and it's a ghost town," Kunkel said.

He found out that he was among the lucky ones: His house was still standing. Still, he worried about the danger still posed by the fire.

"There's houses still smoldering," he said, "and plenty of green stuff still to burn if the fire comes back this way."

This article was written by Mark Berman and Aaron Williams, reporters for The Washington Post. Jason Samenow of The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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