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Sunday 26 January 2020

'Papa, papa, come home. The fire's at the back door...' then the line died

Rob Crilly in New York

Grieving relatives described their desperate two-day search for an elderly woman and her two great-grandchildren, before discovering they had died when flames engulfed their home in raging California wildfires.

The death toll from the state's summer wildfires rose to six at the weekend when fire crews said they had found human remains at a charred home on the outskirts of Redding.

More than 38,000 people remain under evacuation orders from a fire that has destroyed more than 500 buildings and continued to rage unchecked for a seventh day.

Ed Bledsoe described how he left his home with the family's only car to run errands on Thursday leaving behind his wife Melody (70) and two great-grandchildren - James, five, and four-year-old Emily Roberts - behind.

He said his wife telephoned an hour later.

"She said, 'You need to come home right now. The fire's right next to our house'," he said. He tried to race home but was turned back at roadblocks.

Toys stand untouched near a home destroyed by the Carr fire west of Redding, California. Photo: Bob Strong/REUTERS
Toys stand untouched near a home destroyed by the Carr fire west of Redding, California. Photo: Bob Strong/REUTERS

The children were "screaming for their lives", Jason Decker, the boyfriend of another of the Bledsoes' granddaughters, said.

"The kids were saying: 'Papa, papa, come home. The fire's at the back door'."

Then the line went dead.

For two days they searched hospitals and refuges after being told the three had been rescued. But on Saturday, officials said three bodies had been found at what was left of their home.

"My babies are dead," the children's mother Sherry Bledsoe cried, after she was given the news by sheriff's deputies.

Her children had been in the care of their great-grandparents while she had spent the past four months in jail.

Two firefighters also died last week and another body was discovered last night. President Donald Trump declared the fire an emergency at the weekend, freeing federal funds for disaster relief efforts.

Almost 90 fires are burning across western states - stretching from Texas to Oregon - but the most destructive so far is the Carr fire, which has blackened almost 90,000 acres of parched land in California since it started last Monday.

Cal Fire, the state fire brigade, said it was caused by the mechanical failure of a vehicle but has offered no further details.

Since then, low humidity, high temperatures and gusting winds have accelerated it into a blazing, unpredictable storm.

More than 5,000 buildings are at risk as 3,500 firefighters and a squadron of 17 water-dropping helicopters tried to contain its flames by carving buffer zones around it. They said they had contained just 5pc of the fire's perimeter. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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