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Death toll rises to 5 in northern California wildfire

Family members say three people missing in a northern California wildfire have been confirmed dead. The fatalities bring the death toll to five since the massive blaze started burning Monday near Redding, about 402 kilometres north of San Francisco.

Trump issues emergency declaration as blazes rage across state

Sherri Bledsoe, left, cries next to her sister Carla outside of the sheriff's office after hearing news that her children were killed in a wildfire Saturday, July 28, 2018, in Redding, Calif. Bledsoe said Saturday that her two children and her grandmother died in the fire near Redding. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

The death count from a rapidly growing Northern California wildfire rose to five Saturday after two young children and their great-grandmother who had been unaccounted for were confirmed dead.

"My babies are dead," Sherry Bledsoe said through tears after she and family members met with Shasta County sheriff's deputies.

Bledsoe's two children, James Roberts, 5, and Emily Roberts, 4, were stranded with her grandmother Melody Bledsoe, 70, when fire swept through the rural area where they were staying Thursday.

The three were among more than a dozen people reported missing after the furious wind-driven blaze took residents by surprise and levelled several neighbourhoods.

Don Smith, an 81-year-old bulldozer operator from Pollock Pines, was killed when he was overtaken by the blaze while helping to clear vegetation in the wildfire's path.

Redding fire inspector Jeremy Stoke was also killed fighting the blaze that started Monday, while another firefighter died while battling a different fire near Yosemite National Park in the eastern part of the state on July 14.

(CBC News)

The so-called Carr Fire sparked Monday by a vehicle in forested hills grew overnight to 328 square kilometres. It pushed southwest of Redding, about 402 kilometres north of San Francisco and the largest city in the region with about 92,000 residents, toward tiny communities of Ono, Igo and Gas Point.

Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said he expects to find several of those people alive and just out of touch with loved ones. Officers have gone to homes of several people reported missing and found that cars were gone — a strong indication they fled.

It's now the largest of more than 20 fires burning in California. The winds that aided firefighters in keeping the flames from more populated areas were propelling it forward at a frightening rate.

Flames from the Carr Fire lick above a Cal Fire truck in Whiskeytown, Calif., on Friday, July 27. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

"I don't know why it's doing what it's doing," Cal Fire Chief Steve Crawford said. "It's burning in every direction all at the same time. ... It's burning as if it's got strong wind on it even when there's no wind."

The latest tally of 500 destroyed structures was sure to rise; a count by The Associated Press found more than 300 homes destroyed. About 38,000 people are under evacuation orders, 5,000 homes are threatened and the fire was just 5 per cent contained.

Trump issues emergency declaration for state

U.S. President Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration for California on Saturday, allowing counties affected by wildfires to receive federal assistance. In a statement, the White House said the declaration will open up the availability of necessary equipment and resources from the Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA).

Meanwhile, about 200 kilometres southwest of Redding, two blazes prompted mandatory evacuations in Mendocino County. The two fires, burning 50 kilometres apart, started Friday and are threatening more than 350 buildings. The Mendocino County Sheriff's Office ordered evacuations for people living in an area of Ukiah north of Highway 175. Residents in neighbouring Benmore Valley were also told to leave Saturday.

Cal Fire officials said more than 10,000 firefighters were on the line, making progress on 14 large wildfires across California.

A woman surveys damage to her grandmother's house after the so-called Carr Fire burned through Redding on Friday. Officials say the extremely erratic wildfire in and around the city of Redding is growing rapidly, threatening thousands of homes and buildings. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

Big fires also continued to burn outside Yosemite National Park and in the San Jacinto Mountains east of Los Angeles near Palm Springs. As of Saturday afternoon, those fires had burned more nearly 260 square kilometres. Yosemite Valley remained closed to visitors and won't reopen until Friday.

Authorities said they have made an arrest related to looting in the Redding area. 

Bosenko told anxious residents at a community meeting Saturday that authorities had collared a parolee and he was going to jail.

Residents cheered and did so again later when Redding Police Chief Roger Moore said his officers had leads on other suspects.

About 100 law enforcement officers and 260 National Guard soldiers were helping with evacuations and providing security in empty neighbourhoods.

Moore was among the many who lost homes.

The Carr Fire burns along Highway 299 in Redding on Thursday. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

Greg and Terri Hill evacuated their Redding home of 18 years Thursday night with little more than medications, photo albums, clothes and firearms, assuming they'd be back home in a few days.

They returned Friday to find little more than ash.

"It's pretty emotional," Terri Hill said. "But we'll make new memories and get new stuff. Everybody's safe."

The Carr Fire wiped out forest around much of Whiskeytown Lake, burning dozens of boats docked at a marina and then swept through the historic Gold Rush-era town of Shasta and destroyed nearly all of Keswick, a hamlet just west of Redding.

The fire blew across the Sacramento River and burned a path to the property where Melody Bledsoe was living with her great-grandchildren.

A firefighter works to battle the deadly Carr Fire at a home in Redding, Calif., on Thursday. (Daniel Kim/The Sacramento Bee via Associated Press)

Bledsoe's husband, Ed, who had the couple's only car, had gone to buy supplies before any evacuation order was issued, family members said.

His great-grandson phoned him at the store to say the flames were approaching and "we need your help," according to Jason Decker, who is dating one of Bledsoe's granddaughters.

Bledsoe rushed home, but was turned back by police because the fire was raging. He spent Friday searching in vain for the three at shelters while Decker's girlfriend posted desperate messages on social media for any help locating them.

Decker took his motorcycle up to view the property and found smouldering ruins too hot to enter.

"It looked like a war zone," he said. "I couldn't smell death in the air, which is good."

While he discussed the worst-case scenario of the three staying put as the flames closed in, Decker held out some hope Saturday morning until he got the word they were dreading.

"We got horrible news. I have to go," he said and hung up.