Firefighters battling intense heat and strong winds struggled Monday to gain control of a deadly Northern California wildfire that has killed at least six people and destroyed more than 700 homes.
The fire had burned through 150 square miles and was growing, but Cal Fire Incident Commander Brett Gouvea said it was not moving deeper into this town of 92,000.
“We’re feeling a lot more optimistic today as we are starting to gain some ground rather than be in the defensive mode all the time,” said Bret Gouvea incident commander of the so-called Carr Fire. “You’re going to see repopulation in the city of Redding very soon.”
Some residents were allowed to return to their homes Monday, but more than 30,000 remained evacuated and seven people were missing. The fire, sprawling over a swath of land seven times the size of Manhattan, was just 20 percent contained.
And there was no end in sight to the blazing heat blamed for “firenadoes” – twisting, whirlwinds of flame and ash.
AccuWeather meteorologist Evan Duffey said temperatures have consistently exceeded 100 degrees in Redding the last several days, reaching as high as 113. The area might not see a break in the heat until the middle of next week, he added. Low humidity has added to the problem.
“The dryness and extreme heat have led to the extreme fire weather,” Duffey said.
He said a relatively wet winter literally added fuel to the fire by creating more vegetation. When summer heated up, all that vegetation began to die – and kindling was born.
Duffey said the high surface temperatures force air to rise and get unstable. When air with fire underneath it rises, it brings the fire with it, he said.
“The air pulls in the fire and creates its own wind,” he said. “That’s how you get fire vortex, the ‘firenadoes’ that we have been seeing.”
All that heat can mean misery for firefighters battling the blaze. The standard uniform consists of lightweight, flame-resistant pants, shirt and gloves. The firefighter’s gear pack will include a bottle for water or a sports drink. Or they will wear a separate backpack filled with water, says Jessica Gardetto, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center.
“They often work 15 hour shifts or more, and they are a focused bunch that might have to be consistently reminded to drink,” Gardetto said. “Heat exhaustion is always an issue.”