Union Democrat staff

and The Associated Press

More than 12,000 firefighters battled 17 fires across California from San Diego to the Northern Lake Region Monday, and eight people have died, including two firefighters.

Cal Fire said, in all, 240,000 acres have burned and more than 1,000 structures have been destroyed or damaged.

The Ferguson Fire near Yosemite National Park in Mariposa County had grown to more than 56,000 acres by Monday morning. Capt. Brian Hughes, 33, of the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshots, was working with his crew setting backfires when he was struck by a tree.

Officials said Hughes died at the scene — an area of dead trees killed by drought and bark beetle infestation — Sunday. He had been with the agency for four years.

Officials said they expect containment by Aug. 15. More than 5,600 structures remain threatened and one has been destroyed.

Fire officials said crews were able to burn an area south of Merced Grove to protect the park’s iconic stand of giant sequoias.

On Monday, firefighters burned along Pilot Ridge at the Mariposa-Tuolumne county line, which caused an increase in smoke in the Sonora area. The Tuolumne County Health Department issued a public health warning about the smoke Monday afternoon.

Meanwhile, a pair of fires barreled toward small lake towns in Northern California, and authorities faced questions about how quickly they warned residents about the largest and deadliest blaze burning in the state.

Ed Bledsoe told CBS News he did not receive any warning to evacuate his Redding home before the flames came through last week and killed his wife, Melody, and his great-grandchildren, 5-year-old James Roberts and 4-year-old Emily Roberts.

"If I'd have any kind of warning, I'd have never, ever left my family in that house," Bledsoe said.

Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko told the network there's an investigation into whether the Bledsoe home received a warning call or a knock on the door. The sheriff cited evidence that door-to-door notifications were made in the area. Bosenko did not return a message from The Associated Press on Monday.

The dispute came as authorities on Sunday ordered evacuations around twin fires in Mendocino and Lake counties, including from the 4,700-resident town of Lakeport, a popular destination for bass anglers and boaters on the shores of Clear Lake, about 120 miles (195 kilometers) north of San Francisco.

The blazes have destroyed six homes and threaten 10,000 others. So far, the flames have blackened 87 square miles with minimal containment.

"We have experienced fires the last four years, and so we're very aware of what can happen with fires and the damage they can cause," Lake County Sheriff Lt. Corey Paulich said.

Derick Hughes II did not heed the order and remained behind at his property in Nice, Lake County, where he ran sprinklers on his roof and removed yard plants that could catch fire.

The 32-year-old Marine Corps veteran sent his wife and two daughters to safety along with three carloads of belongings. But he said he had too much at stake to leave himself. He bought his three-bedroom house last year using a loan from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"This is everything I bled for, and I've worked really hard to get to where I am, and I'm just not willing to give it up so easily," he said over the phone. "Some people may think that's selfish of me, and I have insurance. But the way things go, I'd rather not start over."

Hughes said about five of his neighbors also disobeyed the evacuation text alert they got Sunday evening to protect their homes and keep looters out.

Farther north, police said five people were arrested on suspicion of entering areas evacuated due to the explosive wildfire around Redding.

That blaze has killed six people and destroyed 723 homes. Authorities were also investigating at least 18 reports of missing people, though many of them may simply have failed to check in with friends or family, police said.

The fire that threatened Redding — a city of about 92,000 — was ignited by a vehicle problem a week ago about 10 miles west of the city. On Thursday, it swept through the historic Gold Rush town of Shasta and nearby Keswick, fueled by gusty winds and dry vegetation. It then jumped the Sacramento River and took out subdivisions on the western edge of Redding.

"It wasn't expected to travel that far that fast," California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Scott Mclean said Monday.

The fire slowed down as winds subsided, and crews were able to get into neighborhoods to prevent embers from taking out additional homes, he said.

Bledsoe said he did not know his home was in danger when he left his wife and great-grandchildren to run an errand on Thursday. He said he received a phone call from his wife 15 minutes after he left saying he needed to get home because the fire was approaching. He said one of the children told him the blaze was at the back door. When he tried to return, the road was blocked and flames prevented him from returning on foot.

The sheriff has said the fire was moving fast, but authorities still alerted residents in a variety of ways, including going door-to-door and using loudspeakers on emergency vehicles.

Authorities also use electronic warning systems, including an emergency alert system that is repeated by local news media and an automated calling system that can be targeted to phones within a geographic area. Another method known as the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System can be directed to any cell phone within reach of a particular transmission tower, said Sherry Bartolo, operations manager for the Shasta County dispatch center.

The drawback of the automated calling system is that it is designed to dial landlines, but cellphone users must register their phones if they are to receive alerts, she said.

The dispatch center put out more than 18 emergency alerts between Thursday evening and midday Friday, Bartolo said.

The center usually has eight dispatchers on duty, but overnight Thursday had at least 12, along with four supervisors and three managers who worked through the night, she said.

Meanwhile, in Southern California, a man was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of starting a fire that burned five homes and prompted evacuation orders for an entire Southern California mountain town.

Brandon N. McGlover, 32, of Temecula was booked on suspicion of setting five fires, including a blaze threatening an estimated 600 homes in the San Jacinto Mountains east of Los Angeles, state fire officials said.

One of the fires erupted Wednesday afternoon and quickly grew to 7.5-square miles, fueled by dry brush and trees in rugged terrain. It was burning in and around San Bernardino National Forest, prompting officials to order evacuations for Idyllwild and surrounding communities, which are home to about 12,000 people.

No injuries were reported, but dozens of horses and other animals and several hundred people, including children from summer camps, went to shelters.

William Blodgett of Idyllwild said he couldn't get home because of the fire and had to wait along with others at a gas station in nearby Mountain Center — until the fire hopped a highway and began to move in his direction.

"We were all peeling out of there as fast as we could," he told KNBC-TV. "It was apocalyptic."

In the San Francisco Bay Area, at least one home burned in a fast-moving blaze in Clayton, where houses are spread out around windy roads.

Yosemite Valley, the scenic heart of the national park, was closed at noon Wednesday during the height of tourist season as smoke cast a pall on the region from a fire in the Sierra Nevada. The closure was heartbreaking for travelers, many of whom mapped out their trips months in advance to hike and climb amid the spectacular views of cascading waterfalls and sheer rock faces.

"We had one guest who planned a weeklong trip," said Tom Lambert, who owns a vacation rental property near Yosemite Valley. "It was a father-daughter trip, for her high school graduation … Now it's done. It's sad." Another guest had to delay plans to climb Half Dome.

The closure has also been a financial blow to Lambert and other businesses that rely on the summer tourist traffic.

Most people left the valley Tuesday, when officials reluctantly announced the closure, park spokesman Scott Gediman said. The remaining campers packed up their gear Wednesday, joining the exodus that has been mostly orderly.

"People have been very understanding," Gediman said.

Officials emphasized that Yosemite wasn't in imminent danger from the fire. Authorities decided on the shutdown to allow crews to perform protective measures such as burning away brush along roadways without having to deal with traffic in the park that welcomes 4 million visitors annually.

The last time the 7.5-mile-long valley was closed because of fire was 1990, he said.

The glacial Yosemite Valley has been enveloped by a choking haze of smoke from the Ferguson Fire.

Over nearly two weeks, flames have churned through 60 square miles of timber in steep terrain of the Sierra Nevada just west of the park. The fire was 30 percent contained Monday.

Gediman suggested valley visitors divert to Tuolumne Meadows, on Yosemite's northern edge, or to Sequoia or Kings Canyon National Parks to the south.

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