A wildfire that roared with little warning into Northern California's Shasta County has claimed two lives as thousands of people scrambled to escape before the walls of flames descended from forested hills onto their neighborhoods, officials said Friday.
The blaze grew to 75 square miles by Friday night and had leveled at least 500 structures and burned 48,312 acres, leaving neighborhoods smoldering and 37,000 people under evacuation orders.
Two have died while battling the raging Carr Fire: Redding fire inspector Jeremy Stoke and a contractor hired to try to contain the flames with a bulldozer. Authorities have not released the name of the contractor.
The Redding Fire Department and Stoke's brother Seth Stoke both posted to social media about the loss.
"Jeremy died while battling the Carr Fire. We ask for your thoughts and prayers for his family and the RFD as we process this tragic loss," the fire department posted on Twitter.
Seth Stoke posted a message on his Facebook page:
"My big brother Jeremy Stoke was the firefighter killed last night on the fire. He is one of the best men I have ever known. I only hope that I can one day fill shoes as heroic and honorable as his and make him proud."
The flames moved so fast that firefighters working in oven-like temperatures and bone-dry conditions had to drop efforts to battle the blaze at one point to help people escape.
The fire, which created at least two flaming tornados that toppled trees, shook firefighting equipment and busted truck windows, took "down everything in its path," said Scott McLean, a spokesman for Cal Fire.
Fire officials warned that the blaze would probably burn deeper into urban areas before there was any hope of containing it, though it either changed direction or was stopped before it could burn into the core of the city.
Residents in the western part of Redding 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."
Many fire crews turned their focus from the flames to getting people out alive.
"Really, we're in a life-saving mode right now in Redding," said Jonathan Cox, battalion chief with Cal Fire. "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."
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 Redding television station KRCR 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 nearby KHSL television wrote on Twitter that the station's Redding reporters were "running home to gather their things."
The fire began Monday with a mechanical failure of a vehicle. It grew completely out of control on Thursday amid scorching temperatures, low humidity and windy conditions. Doubling in size, it tore through two small communities and reached the city of Redding.
Brett Gouvea, incident commander of the crews battling the fire, urged residents to pay close attention to the blaze.
"This fire is extremely dangerous and moving with no regard for what's in its path," he said.
Earlier in the day, with flames exploding around Whiskeytown Lake, people tried to save boats at a marina by untying them from moorings and pushing them to safety. But it wasn't swift enough to spare them all. Dozens of charred, twisted and melted boats were among the losses at Oak Bottom Marina.
"The boat docks down there — all the way out in the water — 30 to 40 boats caught fire when the fire laid down on top of them last night and burned those up," said fire Chief Mike Hebrard of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
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.
Hundreds of miles to the south, the Cranston Fire grew to 7.5 square miles and about 3,000 residents remained under evacuation orders in Idyllwild and several neighboring communities. That fire, which destroyed five homes, is believed to have been sparked by arson.