REDDING, Calif. — Ed Bledsoe left his home in Redding, Calif., on Thursday to run errands while his wife Melody and their two great-grandchildren stayed home. Less than an hour later his wife called.
“She said, ‘You need to come home right now. The fire’s right next to our house,’” Mr. Bledsoe told Capital Public Radio.
Ms. Bledsoe and the great-grandchildren, James Roberts, 5, and Emily Roberts, 4, stayed inside as the fire approached, Donald Kewley, the boyfriend of one of the Bledsoes’ granddaughters, said on Saturday.
Over the phone, he said, Mr. Bledsoe heard them “start panicking and screaming.”
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.
Mr. Bledsoe raced back home, but the smoke was so thick and the flames so high, he could not return, Mr. Kewley said.
On Saturday, the family learned from the coroner’s office that the three were dead, Mr. Decker said. The Shasta County sheriff, Tom Bosenko, said three people had been found dead at Ms. Bledsoe’s home but said the authorities had not identified the bodies.
Ms. Bledsoe and the two children were the latest reported victims in a rampaging fire that has already claimed the lives of two firefighters and left more than a dozen missing, officials said.
As of Saturday morning the fire, which is known as the Carr Fire, had burned more than 80,000 acres, up from more than 40,000 on Friday. It has destroyed 500 structures and forced the evacuations of approximately 39,000 people, the authorities said.
President Trump on Saturday signed an emergency declaration for California and authorized federal aid for disaster relief.
Chief Mike Hebrard of the Shasta-Trinity unit of CalFire described dire conditions as firefighters sought to save homes. “The fire ran with such ferocity,” he said. “There were winds, 70-mile-per-hour winds, tornadolike winds.”
Mr. Kewley, who lives about two miles from the Bledsoes near the Sacramento River in Redding, about 160 miles north of Sacramento, said the family had been keeping track of the fire but did not receive evacuation orders on Thursday.
Then he said he saw the fire “start chewing through the other side of the river.”
“Eight o’clock rolls around and everything just exploded, and everything was on fire,” he said, adding that subdivisions a mile away were “lighting up like the Fourth of July.”
In the neighborhood in Redding where Ms. Bledsoe and the two children perished, the smoldering wreckage of incinerated homes lined the streets, sometimes juxtaposed with dwellings that had remained intact or sustained only minor damage.
Downed power lines snaked across streets, which were largely empty except for the police and fire personnel surveying the damage and utility workers making repairs.
The topography of the area, a mix of rolling hills, canyons and flatlands, spoke to the combustibility of landscapes in this part of Northern California, where communities are often built into what fire experts call the wildland-urban interface.
Interspersed between streets and cul-de-sacs were swaths of open space filled with drought-stressed oaks, manzanita and brush, all of which provide powerful fuels when ignited.
In the wake of the fire, many of these expanses were reduced to blackened ground and the spectral remains of burned trees, giving the area the look of a war zone.
Signs of life still persisted, however. In one front yard just across the street from an obliterated residence, hummingbirds fed from a feeder and the buzzing of wasps could be heard amid the roar of fire trucks moving through the area.
Elsewhere were signs of efforts to save homes as the flames had encroached. At one home, largely spared from the blaze, a garden hose had been unfurled, its nozzle mounted on a post and aimed at a charred fence.
Down the street, though, was the sign of a battle with a more dismal ending: a pile of photographs and film canisters stacked on the sidewalk, and behind it, a home in ruins.
Many residents from evacuated neighborhoods sought to return to their homes on Saturday to determine whether they had survived the blaze or retrieve belongings ahead of future flare-ups.
They often encountered checkpoints with police officers and members of the National Guard, who delivered the frustrating news that they would have to wait for fire dangers to pass.
Christine Shields, 61, paced at an intersection in northwest Redding, pleading with officers to allow her to retrieve a trailer packed with heirlooms from her dead mother’s home.
She struggled to describe the intensity of the blaze as she loaded her mother’s possessions.
“The whole city is in flames and the stuff is falling out of the sky,” Ms. Shields said.
The look of the area reminded her of a horror or science fiction film she’d seen, but the ferocity of the fire was so disorienting she couldn’t remember its title.
“I want to call it ‘Silent Night’ but that’s not it,” she said. “This is spooky.”
Sarah Mervosh contributed reporting.
Follow Christina Caron on Twitter: @cdcaron.