Human remains believed to be that of a missing elderly woman and her two great-grandchildren were found at a home destroyed by a monster wildfire raging in Northern California, officials said on Saturday, raising the death toll from the blaze to five.
The three bodies have yet to be positively identified. But news of their discovery, confirmed by the Shasta County sheriff, came as some 3,500 firefighters struggled through a sixth day to corral fierce, erratic flames stoked by tinder-dry vegetation, high winds and triple-digit temperatures.
The Carr Fire has charred nearly 84,000 acres (34,000 hectares), an area nearly three times the size of San Francisco, since erupting on Monday near Redding, a city of 90,000 people about 160 miles (260 kms) north of the state capital Sacramento.
The blaze was one of about a dozen major wildfires burning across California on Saturday and of nearly 90 overall from Texas to Oregon.
Driven by gale-force winds Thursday night, it exploded into a firestorm that leaped the Sacramento River and engulfed whole neighborhoods in and around Redding, sending thousands of people fleeing for their lives in a chaotic evacuation.
A private bulldozer operator on the fire line and a Redding firefighter were killed in the conflagration. The nearby town of Keswick, with a population of about 450, was reduced to ash.
Some 500 structures were destroyed, and 38,000 people remained under evacuation orders as of Saturday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
On Saturday afternoon, Redding police said they were trying to locate 17 people reported missing by relatives or friends since Thursday night. Police Sergeant Todd Cogle said the number of those unaccounted for had fluctuated during the past two days - from as many as 20 to as few as 12 - as some who were reported missing turned up safe and others were added to the list.
Counted among them were the three victims whose bodies officials said were found at an incinerated home on the outskirts of Redding.
'I WAS TRYING TO GET TO THEM'
The Sacramento Bee newspaper said family members identified the dead as 70-year-old Melody Bledsoe, and her two great-grandchildren, James Roberts, 4, and Emily Roberts, 5.
The children's mother, Sherry Bledsoe, was quoted by the newspaper as saying, "My kids are deceased, that's all I can say," as she left the sheriff's office on Saturday.
According to the Sacramento Bee account, Melody Bledsoe's husband, Ed Bledsoe, wept as he recalled trying to get back to the family's house after he had left to run an errand on Thursday, only to learn that the fire was closing in on them. He told the newspaper that he spoke to the children on the phone as he raced in vain to return in time to save them.
"I talked to them until the fire got them," he was quoted as saying. "I was trying to get to them, I was trying to get to the fire."
Sheriff Tom Bosenko declined to provide details about the three deaths. At a community meeting in Redding late on Saturday, he told Reuters, "There were three confirmed fatalities at that location."
So far this year, wildfires have scorched almost 4.3 million acres (1.7 million hectares) across the country, less than last year but still higher than the 3.7 million-acre (1.5 million-hectare) average for the same period over the last decade. California has been particularly hard hit with several fierce blazes menacing large populated areas.
One of those, the Cranston fire, prompted a rare closure of much of Yosemite National Park last week, while another forced mass evacuations from the mountain resort community of Idyllwild east of Los Angeles.
Fire officials said the Carr Fire in particular has burned with an "unprecedented" intensity and unpredictable progression that has confounded them.
As of Saturday night, ground crews backed by a squadron of 17 water-dropping helicopters had managed to carve buffer lines around just 5 percent of the fire's perimeter, leaving the blaze largely unchecked.
At a community meeting in Redding, fire command spokesman Rick Young said 150 fire engines had been newly deployed to the blaze, many from out of state. National Guard troops also were called in to assist at roadblocks.
"We have experienced a lot of looting in these evacuation zones," Redding Police Chief Roger Moore said, adding that police had made at least one arrest and were searching for several other suspects.
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