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Third firefighter killed while responding to Carr Fire near Redding

SF Gate logo SF Gate 8/10/2018 By Michael Cabanatuan and Peter Fimrite

a close up of a tree: Dead and live trees and the sun behind a cloud of smoke as Yosemite National Park remains clouded in smoke from the Ferguson fire, on August 1, 2018. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Dead and live trees and the sun behind a cloud of smoke as Yosemite National Park remains clouded in smoke from the Ferguson fire, on August 1, 2018. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
© Provided by Hearst Communications, Inc

The death toll in what was already the most lethal year for firefighters in California since 2008 increased to five on Thursday, when a heavy equipment mechanic was killed after falling asleep at the wheel on his way to the fire lines near Redding, a family member told The Chronicle.

Andrew Brake, 40, of Chico, died in a single-car crash on his way to work on the Carr Fire, which had already claimed the lives of two firefighters and five other people, including a woman and her two great-grandchildren, and a PG&E lineman, who died trying to restore power to the area.

Brake was a six-year veteran of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, working out of the Butte unit in Oroville. The crash occurred about 7:30 a.m. on Highway 99 south of Los Molinos in Tehama County, officials and relatives said.

His mother, Teresa Brake of Chico, said he had been working almost nonstop fighting fires since May and was obviously tired at the time of the accident.

“I’ve had nightmares about him having something like this happen,” she said, adding that they have barely had time to text one another after his exhausting days at work.

Cal Fire would not say how many hours Andrew Brake had been working in the days leading up to his death, but fire experts have expressed concern about worker fatigue as fires have relentlessly burned across the state this summer. California had 18 active conflagrations across the state Thursday.

“I think those guys need to come home for awhile,” Teresa Brake said. “It’s not the fire department’s fault. He should have been in his hotel resting.”

Andrew Brake grew up in Chico and is survived by his parents, Melvin and Teresa; sister Lyndsay Barrett; daughters Marissa, 20, and Miranda, 16; and their mother, Liberté.

Brake was the third firefighter killed in the battle to contain the Carr Fire, which has burned 177,450 acres in three weeks, ravaging the area around Redding and destroying 1,077 homes. It continues to scorch steep, dry uninhabited land and has no projected date for containment.

Two firefighters died in the early days of the fire as flames roared into Redding: Don Ray Smith, 81, a contract bulldozer operator from Pollock Pines (El Dorado County); and Jeremy Stoke, a fire inspector for the Redding Fire Department.

Stoke, whose memorial service was held Thursday, died while assisting with evacuations. Smith was overtaken by flames while clearing protective lines.

Slideshow by photo services

With the deaths of a Cal Fire bulldozer operator and a leader of a hotshot crew on the Ferguson Fire west of Yosemite National Park, five firefighters have died in California battling wildfires in 2018, more than any year since 2008.

According to figures released by Cal Fire, 22 fire service workers have died on duty since 2008, not including this year. Thirteen of those deaths came in 2008, including nine firefighters killed in a helicopter crash in Trinity County while fighting the Iron Complex Fire.

Since then, fire service deaths have been relatively few. Just one firefighter died in last year’s devastating Wine Country Fires. Three firefighters died in 2009 and 2016, and one firefighter died in each of the years 2014 and 2015.

“What we’re seeing are conditions that are off the charts as far as fire behavior,” said Jonathan Cox, a Cal Fire battalion chief. “And unfortunately, the risks are also off the charts.”

More than 4,700 firefighters from around the country have been sent to Shasta and Trinity counties to battle the Carr Fire.

Northern California’s three biggest wildfires are growing more slowly and mostly away from communities, but they continue to elude containment.

The Mendocino Complex, considered the largest wildfire in state history, grew by about 4,000 acres Wednesday to 304,402 acres total. Most of the growth was on the northern edge of the Ranch Fire, the larger of two fires that make up the complex. The Ranch Fire has consumed 255,482 acres and is 48 percent contained. The River Fire remained steady at 84 percent contained.

The moderate spread of the flames allowed fire crews to strengthen lines around the fire, and firefighters continued to patrol the southwest boundaries of the blaze and bolster fire lines on the north.

In and around Yosemite National Park, firefighters battling the Ferguson Fire took advantage of humid weather to increase containment of the 95,104-acre blaze to 79 percent as of Thursday. Crews are burning off fuel in some areas to prevent the fire from reaching further into the park.

While the park remains open, its most popular attractions — Yosemite Valley, the Mariposa and Merced groves of giant sequoias — remain closed, as does the entrance on Highway 140. Highway 41 is open only to residents of Yosemite West (Mariposa County), a residential community just outside the park boundaries.

Michael Cabanatuan and Peter Fimrite are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: mcabanatuan@sfchronicle.com, pfimrite@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ctuan@pfimrite

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