California 'Tasmanian devil' fire kills 2 firefighters, thousands flee

REDDING, Calif., July 27 (Reuters) - A fast-growing northern California wildfire killed a second firefighter on Friday after high winds drove it into the city of Redding, prompting mass evacuations, destroying scores of homes and threatening some 5,000 other dwellings and businesses, officials said.

Flames raging in California's scenic Shasta-Trinity area erupted late Thursday into a firestorm that jumped across the Sacramento River and swept into the western side of Redding, home to about 90,000 people, forcing residents to flee for their lives.

Firefighters and police "went into life-safety mode," hustling door to door to usher civilians out of harm's way, said Scott McLean, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

22 PHOTOS
Wildfires near Redding, California
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Wildfires near Redding, California
TOPSHOT - An inmate firefighter pauses during a firing operation as the Carr fire continues to burn in Redding, California on July 27, 2018. - One person has died and at least two others have been injured as wind-whipped flames tore through the region. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Toys stand untouched near a home destroyed by the Carr Fire west of Redding, California, U.S. July 28, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong
A woman covers her face while viewing her grandmother's burned home during the Carr fire in Redding, California on July 27, 2018. - 'Two firefighters have been killed in the Carr fire. A private contractor (operating) a bulldozer died yesterday and a Redding City firefighter was killed in the evening,' a spokesman for Calfire, the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told AFP. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A real estate sign is seen in front of a burning home during the Carr fire in Redding, California on July 27, 2018. - One firefighter has died and at least two others have been injured as wind-whipped flames tore through the region. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A firefighter watches flames advance up a hill towards homes as crews battle the Carr Fire, west of Redding, California, U.S. July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Fred Greaves
Kambryn Brilz, 12, holds her dog Zoe at her burnt home after she was returned safely by a neighbor during the Carr fire in Redding, California on July 27, 2018. One firefighter has died and at least two others have been injured as wind-whipped flames tore through the region. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A firefighter watches flames advance up a hill towards homes as crews battle the Carr Fire, west of Redding, California, U.S. July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Fred Greaves
The debris of a burned home is seen after the Carr Fire west of Redding, California, U.S. July 28, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong?
A firefighter walks between brush rigs as the the Carr Fire burns behind him, west of Redding, California, U.S. July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Fred Greaves
A CalFire firefighter douses flames on a burning home during the Carr fire in Redding, California on July 27, 2018. - 'Two firefighters have been killed in the Carr fire. A private contractor (operating) a bulldozer died yesterday and a Redding City firefighter was killed in the evening,' a spokesman for Calfire, the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told AFP. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Inmate fire crews cut a fire line during the evening as crews battle the Carr Fire, west of Redding, California, U.S. July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Fred Greaves
A firefighter watches flames advance up a hill towards homes as crews battle the Carr Fire, west of Redding, California, U.S. July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Fred Greaves
Inmate fire crews cut a fire line during the evening as crews battle the Carr Fire, west of Redding, California, U.S. July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Fred Greaves
A charred statue is seen among the burned out remains of a residential neighborhood during the Carr fire in Redding, California on July 27, 2018. Two firefighters have died and dozens of homes have burned as wind-whipped flames tore through the region. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A firefighter watches the flames advance up a hill towards homes as crews battle the Carr Fire, west of Redding, California, U.S., July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Fred Greaves
A firefighter watches flames advance up a hill towards homes as crews battle the Carr Fire, west of Redding, California, U.S., July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Fred Greaves
Celia Corona rescues an injured cat in a burned residential neighborhood during the Carr fire in Redding, California on July 27, 2018. Two firefighters have died and hundreds of homes have burned as wind-whipped flames tore through the region. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Keaton Brilz, 14, looks at his burned home with his family during the Carr fire in Redding, California on July 27, 2018. Two firefighters have died and more than 100 homes have burned as wind-whipped flames tore through the region. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Wade Brilz looks at his burned home during the Carr fire in Redding, California on July 27, 2018. Two firefighters have died and more than 100 homes have burned as wind-whipped flames tore through the region. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Firefighters monitor a backfire during the Carr fire in Redding, California on July 27, 2018. - One person has died and at least two others have been injured as wind-whipped flames tore through the region. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
REDDING, CA - JULY 27: A home burns along Sunflower Road during the Carr Fire on July 27, 2018 in Redding, California. A firefighter was killed battling the fast moving Carr Fire which has burned over 28,000 acres and destroyed dozens of homes. The fire is reportedly only 6 percent contained. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Fire fighters battle the Carr Fire west of Redding, California, U.S. July 28, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong
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Gale-force winds on Thursday night whipped the blaze into a frenzy, creating fire tornadoes that uprooted trees and tore into structures. "It was like a Tasmanian devil," McLean told Reuters.

Such highly erratic, storm-like wildfires, burning so intensely that typical barriers such as rivers and highways fail to halt their advance, have grown more commonplace, McLean said.

They also seem to be occurring more often at night, as with wind-driven conflagrations that devastated parts of Santa Rosa in the heart of California wine country in October and swept Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in December.

Cooler weather, higher humidity and calmer winds that normally prevailed after the sun sets could once be counted on to help tamp down flames, but McLean said extreme winds are happening with greater frequency after dark.

Some 37,000 people remained under evacuation orders on Friday, as flames continued to burn in pockets of the city's west side, he said.

CalFire reported 65 structures destroyed by the blaze, but McLean called that tally a "placeholder" figure that would grow significantly, with the number of homes lost likely to run into "the hundreds" as the scope of devastation was fully assessed.

Nearly 5,000 homes were listed by CalFire as threatened.

18 PHOTOS
California wildfires 2018
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California wildfires 2018
A firefighter watches flames advance up a hill towards homes as crews battle the Carr Fire, west of Redding, California, U.S. July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Fred Greaves
REDDING, CA - JULY 27: A firefighter uses a drip torch to light a backfire while battling the larger Carr Fire on July 27, 2018 in Redding, California. A firefighter was killed battling the fast moving Carr Fire which has burned over 28,000 acres and destroyed dozens of homes. The fire is reportedly only 6 percent contained. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
REDDING, CA - JULY 27: A firefighter monitors a backfire while battling the larger Carr Fire on July 27, 2018 in Redding, California. A firefighter was killed battling the fast moving Carr Fire which has burned over 28,000 acres and destroyed dozens of homes. The fire is reportedly only 6 percent contained. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
REDDING, CA - JULY 27: Firefighters monitor a backfire while battling the larger Carr Fire on July 27, 2018 in Redding, California. A firefighter was killed battling the fast moving Carr Fire which has burned over 28,000 acres and destroyed dozens of homes. The fire is reportedly only 6 percent contained. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A firefighter watches flames advance up a hill towards homes as crews battle the Carr Fire, west of Redding, California, U.S. July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Fred Greaves
REDDING, CA - JULY 27: An orange glow from the Carr Fire lights up burnt trees as the fire burns through dry brush on July 27, 2018 in Redding, California. A firefighter was killed battling the fast moving Carr Fire which has burned over 28,000 acres and destroyed dozens of homes. The fire is reportedly only 6 percent contained. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Santa Barbara County Firefighter spray water on flames at a home at the site of a wildfire in Goleta, California, U.S., July 6, 2018 in this image released on social media. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT.
Santa Barbara County Firefighter spray water on flames at a home at the site of a wildfire in Goleta, California, U.S., July 6, 2018 in this image released on social media. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT.
GOLETA, CA - JULY 07: Firefighters spray foam on the remains of a destroyed home in the aftermath of the Holiday Fire on July 7, 2018 in Goleta, California. The fire destroyed a number of homes in the community during an intense heat wave which broke various records across Southern California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
GOLETA, CA - JULY 7: Wildfire destroy homes in Goleta, Calif., on July 7, 2018. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
GOLETA, CA - JULY 7: Wildfire destroy homes in Goleta, Calif., on July 7, 2018. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
GOLETA, CA - JULY 7: Embers from a burning home rises up in the air after a wildfire sweeps through Goleta, Calif., on July 7, 2018. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
GOLETA, CA - JULY 7: Wildfire destroy homes in Goleta, Calif., on July 7, 2018. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
GOLETA, CA - JULY 7: Firefighters work to contain a structure fire as wildfire spreads along North Fairview Ave, in Goleta, Calif., on July 7, 2018. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
GOLETA, CA - JULY 7: A firefighter waits for water to be pumped before he can begin working to contain a structure fire as wildfire spreads along North Fairview Ave, in Goleta, Calif., on July 7, 2018. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
GOLETA, CA - JULY 7: Firefighters work to contain a structure fire as wildfire spreads along North Fairview Ave, in Goleta, Calif., on July 7, 2018. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Hot Shot crews from Mendocino, Calif., use backfires to help contain the County fire along Highway 129 near Lake Berryessa in Yolo County, Calif., on Tuesday, July 3, 2018. (Randall Benton/Sacramento Bee/TN)
Hot Shot crews from Mendocino, Calif., use backfires to help contain the County fire along Highway 129 near Lake Berryessa in Yolo County, Calif., on Tuesday, July 3, 2018. (Randall Benton/Sacramento Bee/TN)
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CURTAIN OF SMOKE

The Carr Fire's footprint grew by 60 percent overnight and by Friday morning had scorched 44,450 acres (18,000 hectares), CalFire officials said. The blaze was just 3 percent contained as ground crews, water-dropping helicopters and airplane tankers battled the flames for a fifth day.

A curtain of smoke and flames loomed over low-slung buildings in Redding early on Friday, with forecasts calling for wind gusts of 25 miles (40 km) per hour and temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 Celsius).

CalFire spokesman Scott Kenney said triple-digit temperatures not only help stoke the fires, but slow down crews battling them.

"Stress, as far as heat exhaustion and heat stroke, are really serious situations that a firefighter can get into," he said.

The Carr Fire was one of nearly 90 large blazes burning nationally, most of them in the West. One of those prompted the closure of much of Yosemite National Park in California.

Wildfires have blackened an estimated 4.15 million acres (1.68 million hectares) in the United States this year. That is well above average for the same period over the past 10 years but down from 5.27 million acres (2.13 million hectares) burned in the first seven months of 2017, the National Interagency Fire Center reported.

The blaze in Redding on Thursday killed a bulldozer operator working with fire teams to clear brush around the fire. A member of the Redding Fire Department was also reported killed on Friday. A Redding hospital said it had treated eight people, including three firefighters.

THOUSANDS OF BUILDINGS IMPERILED

Rob Wright, 61, and his wife stayed to fight off flames with a high-powered water hose.

"We were fortunate enough that the wind changed hours ago, and it is pushing the fire back," said Wright early on Friday. "We are just waiting it out ... crossing our fingers and hoping for the best."

Video and images posted on social media showed flames engulfing structures, as an orange glow lit up the night sky.

Roads out of Redding, about 150 miles (240 km) north of Sacramento, were jammed overnight as motorists rushed to escape.

A Red Cross employee told local ABC affiliate KRCR-TV some 500 people took shelter in an evacuation center at Shasta College.

More than 3,000 customers had lost power in the area, according to utility PG&E.

The Carr Fire was one of three fierce blazes threatening large populated areas.

Cal Fire said the Cranston Fire, about 110 miles (177 km) east of Los Angeles had blackened 11,500 acres (4,650 hectares) and was only 3 percent contained. The Ferguson Fire near Yosemite, which has charred 45,911 acres (18,500 hectares), was 29 percent contained.

A 32-year-old man was charged with setting the Cranston fire along with eight others. Brandon N. McGlover faces a potential life sentence if convicted of the charges and is being held on a $1 million bond.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Tea Kvetenadze in New York and Makini Brice in Washington, Writing by Scott Malone and Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Tarrant and James Dalgleish)

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