California was aflame the entire summer and autumn of 2018. Here in my town of Redding a simple unfortunate mishap sparked a conflagration unlike any we had ever seen here. There is no blame to cast; it was just a whole lot of events that combined to create a ravenous beast that was hell-bent on having the last word. The only beast greater devastated the town of Paradise later that autumn, and it made Redding's Carr Fire pale in comparison. But the Carr Fire was my beast - my horror - although I still shed tears for Paradise and that surrounding area south of me.
This is my therapy right now, revisiting my experiences during the Carr Fire. This first photo captures the desperation as the firenado crossed the river and entered the western edge of my town just after it wiped out most of the community of Keswick. This is a photo of the evacuation as the Carr Fire bore down on my beautiful city. That was the "craziness" here. We found "beauty" in the many selfless people who volunteered their time, homes, money and supplies to assist the victims - human and animal. We witnessed heroism in the many emergency personnel who continued the fight even though their own homes had been lost to the flames. We still mourn the dead, we still celebrate the heroes, we still remember it all like it was yesterday.
As I write this the summer of 2019 is gearing up to swelter us under its unforgiving sun. Thousands of us are still experiencing PTSD, yet like good soldiers, we are carrying on with our lives and using our experience to enlighten the complacent, lest history repeat itself.
Memories haunt me. I see ironies in the events that followed in my own life after this experience. I find it ironic that I spent a night in my car with my cats (the temp was 114 degrees that night), only to lose one that October when he ran into the road chasing something only to get hit by a car. Rest in peace, Simba - you were my brave soldier during the evacuation, and somehow your fascination with the whole scenario made me smile through my tears.
Monday, July 23, 2018
This is how it began:
"Firefighters are being sent this afternoon to a grass fire off Highway 299 near the Carr Powerhouse area at Whiskeytown Lake.
"The fire broke out around 1:15 p.m. Air tankers and helicopters are among the resources being sent to help fight the fire.
"Officials are asking for help from other jurisdictions, including Trinity County and the city of Shasta Lake."
By 3:00 that afternoon, and with 0% containment, the fire moved toward the small community of French Gulch while officials tried to figure out how to evacuate people from there and where to evacuate them to. By 4:00 p.m., mandatory evacuations were issued and buses sent into French Gulch. However, many of the residents were not at home but at work in Redding and surrounding communities. Posts came over Facebook about these residents calling their neighbors to rescue their children and their pets (as the road in was closed to all but emergency vehicles). A community-wide effort began in French Gulch to round up the children and pets of these working people. Soon the buses accepted all evacuees, two-legged and four-legged. Yet, some of the residents stayed behind to save their town and began their own fire-fighting efforts, as this was not the first time French Gulch was threatened by fire (it happened before in 2004). Eventually, the town was saved, but the fire continued to spread during the night. By 9:30 that night the fire had grown to 2,400 acres with containment near 5%.
This was only the beginning.
Tuesday, July 24, 2018
Cal Fire Fact Sheet - morning
Overnight: 3,126 acres 15% contained
The fire continued to move east of French Gulch. Smoke was becoming heavy in Redding which is to the east. Evacuations in the mountain communities continued, with adjacent towns added to the list.
At this point, our local news media was slow to get details on this story other than what Cal Fire made available to the public. Local channels continued with their regular programming, to the frustration of many viewers who turned to the Internet for the latest information and eyewitness accounts. Sam Same created a new page on Facebook dedicated to the Carr Fire, and this is where most people learned the latest. As the day unfolded it became obvious this was not just a typical fire; this was a monster in the making, a ravenous beast that continued to grow bigger and stronger with every acre it devoured.
Cal Fire Map Showing Spread as of morning Tuesday, July 24, 2018. French Gulch is in the middle in a clear space.
Despite the smoke hanging over western Redding and some parts of Anderson in the south, locals debated going to Whiskeytown Lake for the day (part of the road to the lake was still open between Redding and Whiskeytown Lake). Many cancelled their plans because of the poor air quality. People with COPD and other lung conditions began to feel the effects of the smoke. Employees at the Whiskeytown Lake and Recreation Area were sent home for the week.
By nine/nine-thirty that night, residents began reporting ash falling in western Redding and the town of Shasta Lake City to the north of Redding. The air quality continued to worsen with the increasing smoke.
By nightfall the fire on the mountain was clearly visible as it continued to travel east toward the valley and the communities of Keswick and Redding. I watched it from my driveway for a long time that night. I could see new fires erupting from flaming debris carried by the wind, as well as back burns that were set by the firefighters. It was travelling fast. The potential of this beast was apparent. That was the night I began my bug-out list, just in case. Did I sleep that night? Not a wink!
Wednesday, July 25, 2018
Overnight: 4,500 acres and 24% contained reported at 7 a.m.
Changing wind conditions forced the fire to move in all four directions. Residents at the western edge of Redding and the towns of Shasta Lake City and Happy Valley (south of Redding) began reporting ash falling in their neighborhoods. Smoke continued to travel eastward; reports came in to Facebook from residents of the Enterprise area in eastern Redding.
As evening dawned, some found charred leaves in their yards and on their streets that were carried there by the increasing winds. Someone else posted a photograph on Facebook of a pyrocumulus cloud that had formed over the fire. The flames on the mountain were clearly visible to residents of Anderson in the south. Reports came in that the historic little town of Shasta just east of the fire (and east of Whiskeytown) was threatened (much of the town was lost later to the fire). French Gulch was imperiled for the second time. Authorities closed all roads leading into Whiskeytown area.
Nerves were on edge, people began worrying. Firefighters continued their valiant efforts.
I spent the bulk of that day gathering my important papers, packing what I would need, and making a back-up disk of my computer, plus separate disks of my manuscripts in progress. I set everything on the sofa next to the door to my carport so it would all be easy to load if the need arose. My internet scanner and handheld scanner kept me informed, as did the many posts appearing on Facebook, which turned out to be an excellent source for up-to-the-minute news from all affected areas. Our local television station had a crawler going and was giving better coverage of the fire, but they were still showing regular programming during the day and during "prime time" hours. Our local radio stations weren't much better, most being owned by conglomerates that fed a pre-recorded loop to all their affiliates. Very frustrating. Thank God for the Internet and scanners!
Another night with no sleep, mostly due to my gut-feeling The Beast was going to head my way. Still - and I deeply regret this in retrospect - I didn't plan well enough, hoping my feelings were wrong. If I had followed my gut I would have already had a motel room reserved and paid for in advance. Plus, I would have taken thirty minutes out of my preparations to go to the store and buy two more cat carriers; but I was gambling my premonition was based completely on fear, and I was reluctant to leave my only reliable source of up-to-the-minute news, the Internet.
Thursday, July 26, 2018
Overnight July 25-26: 20,000 acres
By Evening on This Day: 28,763 acres 10% contained
The "firenado" happened around 7:35 or so that evening. The fire jumped the river and torched most of the community of Keswick. From there, it took aim at Redding.
Photo at Left: The Firenado as seen from my subdivision. Photo credit: Ray Lopez
Thursday, July 26, 2018 – a day that has been named “Black Thursday” by Redding resident and Facebook poster David Lilley – the day began with the usual bad news that the CARR Fire west of Redding, California had increased in size. This monster of a wildfire was nowhere near containment. Fire fighters from all over California and many other states, plus countries such as Samoa, Australia and New Zealand (to name but a few) were en-route to assist our State, which was suffering four major fires from north to south at the time. Satellite photos showed California blanketed in smoke. As a matter of fact, the entire West Coast was blanketed in smoke from the Mexican Border in the south through Canada in the north. So, along with the bad news that our local CARR Fire had devoured more acreage and structures that morning came the additional news we already knew that the air was toxic.
The sun arose blood red above the horizon, which, from my kitchen window usually included a partial view of Mt. Shasta. Mt. Shasta was completely obscured by the thick sheet of gray smoke that lay so low it even obscured the ground cover of the nearby properties. I cussed in a whisper to myself as I stirred my coffee and then carried it into the living room where the local news on the television was running a crawler with the same evacuation and shelter information from the night before. I found it terribly frustrating that they were still broadcasting their usual programming as if everything but what they had going on the crawler was normal. But nothing was normal and they knew it; behind the scenes my local television news reporters were frantically gathering as much up-to-the-minute information as the emergency agencies were delivering. The problem was the emergency agencies were behind in the information they had on hand, and CalFire had their hands full fighting this demon wildfire and had little time to post timely updates. This is the way it is when TSHTF.
I shut off the television and monitored the Internet instead, checked CalFire’s web site and found their latest update was time-stamped very early that morning and said the same thing the news crawler on the tube said. I then went to the CalFire scanner frequency on the Internet and monitored that while I also monitored my hand-held scanner that received emergency dispatches from all the local agencies. The news was gradually going from bad to worse as terms such as, “out of control,” “send to that spot fire over the ridge,” plus terms that I did not understand squawked through my scanner and computer speakers.
People on Facebook began posting their own dire news from their neighborhoods in the path of the fire. Bad news. "Packing up." "Getting out." “I can see it from here.” “Hosing down the roof.” “Does anyone have any current news on where it’s going?”
My phone rang. It was my friend Shawn. “Ash falling in north part of Redding. Start packing.”
I had already packed many things, including computer back-up disks. I had already placed my two cat carriers in the laundry room. My neighborhood was still safe and I had time. I alerted some of my neighbors – the ones that were home, anyway – and told them about the ash (which had just begun to slowly fall on my street) told them to pack up and be ready to evacuate, and to spread the news to others. There came after that a lot of people knocking on their neighbors’ doors. I was proud of them that they listened. Back I went into my house where I dumped my prescription medicines into a backpack, grabbed my oxygen tanks and placed them by the door. I wanted so much to pack everything into the trunk of my car, but the temperature outside was already 108 degrees and forecasted to reach 114 that afternoon. My medicines would be ruined in that heat, and as for the oxygen tanks – well, I couldn’t risk it. In the meantime I packed up my important documents, including my mother’s funeral book, then remembered my two Bibles – my personal one with my immediate family’s records, and the antique one from my great grandmother from the 1860’s that had my family genealogical records in it. I placed those Bibles on my dining room table so I wouldn’t forget them.
Needing a break, I went back to monitoring the Internet and my scanners. The news there hadn’t changed from two hours before. Now and then I looked out my windows to see if the ash fall had increased; it had not. It reminded me of a winter day when it tried to snow but could only produce a few meager flakes.
We’ll be okay. It’s just a little ash. It’ll stop when the wind direction changes. There’s hardly a breeze here, anyway. We’ll be okay.
Back to the television. Same crawler. Back to the Internet. Reports of intermittent power outages. PG&E warned they might have to do that. No outages here. We’re okay.
As the day progressed the voices over the scanner took on an ominous tone as firefighters reported more neighborhoods up in flames or in the path of flames. Street names I recognized, had ridden my bike through, had visited friends at, had attended church services at – all in peril! And with these street names the voices of firefighters, "Get the hell out of there! Get the hell out of there now! It’s moving too fast!"
I heard the pitter-patter of what sounded like heavy rain on my roof and the aluminum cover over my deck. Out I went to investigate. Charred leaves and debris floated down through the thickening gray. Soon charred bits of foam rubber from broiled lawn furniture miles away joined this Rain of Hades. I headed for the backyard where tiny falling bits of hot debris landed on my arms and hands, burning me. I ignored it and turned the water on full force. For the fifth time that day I watered down my property – watered the back yard to where it was mud, filled buckets and tubs with water, hosed down my roof and siding, flooded my just finished-that-morning new front landscaping. It crossed my mind while I was doing that my instincts the prior month to remove the flammable junipers I hated was actually some kind of premonition… they were gone and good riddance.
Inside once more I rechecked my bug-out bags on the sofa by the door, rechecked my lists, checked them twice, checked them a third time. What can go in the trunk right now in this heat? So much of it was medication; I had to save those for last, along with the cats.
The lights dimmed then returned to full illumination. I found that disconcerting, a sign to get my butt in gear. As soon as I stood to get my car keys, my friend Shawn called and said, “Be ready. The fire’s moving your way. It’s bad out here. We’re coming to get you. We’ll be there in two minutes.” He and my landscaper Jon were right up the street in Jon’s truck.
The shock settled in the moment I hung up the phone. I wailed to God, slamming my palms upon my desk, “Not my house! Not my house! Please God! Not my house!” At once reality replaced shock, and I shut down the computer and scanner, pulled myself together.
I wrestled with the cats to get them into the only two carriers I had. I managed to get Pretty Girl into one of the carriers, but the two boys, Handsome and Simba, would have none of it. Handsome split when Shawn pulled open my sliding glass door and stepped in, talking loudly and urgently with Jon at his side. The cat bolted for the creek behind my house. I brought my third cat Simba into my bedroom and closed the door while the guys transported the bags off my sofa and into the car. The guys filled the trunk and the back seat, set Pretty Girl on the back seat last. He told me through the bedroom door it was time to go. I realized I would have to carry Simba in my arms because the remaining carrier was too small for him. I was exhausted and going into COPD distress – talk about bad timing! I tossed Shawn my keys so I could sit as a passenger with Simba on my lap.
As we pulled out I noticed something that infuriated me: There were people strolling up my street! STROLLING! Walking their dogs in the rain of ash and cinders and sightseeing like this was some kind of reality TV show or something. What were they looking at? They were viewing the flames from the neighborhood less than a mile away across the railroad tracks where the loud booms of exploding propane tanks cut through the smoky air. Even that didn’t seem to scare them. I couldn’t believe it. Shawn said, “That’s the difference between the ones that die and the ones that make it.” But at least there were some people who were packing their cars and pulling out, too. We would make it. Maybe our neighborhood would be ashes tomorrow, but we would still be alive – that’s what mattered.
As soon as we made it to Caterpillar Road, the desperation of terrified masses showed as fender-benders and near misses became an additional hazard. Shawn and I kept calm, Shawn an expert at this emergency stuff. He was my angel at that moment and I trusted him completely. He knew all the back roads, as did Jon, and we kept our cool all the way into their neighborhood in east Redding. Even when Shawn warned me, “Don’t expect your house to be there in the morning,” I swallowed my fear and my growing grief over what I begged God not to take from me.
Two puffs off my inhaler, and I was good for the moment. Oxygen tanks and my Bibles on board, my mind and spirit too numb to pray, I sat and watched my fellow evacuees flee The Beast as the red sun disappeared behind the wall of flame and smoke in the west.
We passed Shasta College that had become the alternate shelter since Shasta High School’s shelter had been evacuated. We shook our heads at the sign in front of the Shasta College entrance that announced their shelter was full. As far as we knew there were no other shelters in the area. Shawn and I shared the same opinion a lot of people with nowhere else to go would be camping along the roads and in parking lots.
Pretty Girl protested in her carrier on the back seat. She knew something big and scary was going on, but she couldn’t see a thing from her vantage point. Standing upon my lap with his paws on the window ledge, Simba watched the smoky curtain of flames through the passenger window as if it was the most amazing thing he had ever seen in his short cat life. Now and then he turned to me and inquired about it in his cat language. I petted and comforted him. In the core of my being I was convinced he knew what we were fleeing. In the meantime, I worried about my third cat Handsome who had taken off in a panic out the sliding glass door. I regretted we didn’t have enough time to find him and bring him with us. I was angry with myself for not picking up two more carriers when I had the time to do so. (I was too afraid I would miss something on the scanners or Internet about my neighborhood while I was gone!) If I had done that, all three would have been safe in their carriers in the back seat, traveling with me to a safe place to wait out this disaster. If only I hadn’t put my faith in the likelihood (or wishful thinking) the fire would not come our way! If only I hadn’t been reluctant to leave my only sources of information: my scanner, my online scanner, and the Internet! If Handsome died in this fire, it was my fault. Completely my fault.
That night I stayed in my car with my cats in the sweltering heat. During that time I monitored the local radio stations for information only to find they were still playing the prerecorded loops of music. I had no idea the fire had created a tornado that had jumped the river and wiped out most of the community of Keswick and had already destroyed subdivisions in west Redding. And why was I trying to get information from the car radio? First reason: I did not own a cell phone. Second reason: in all the confusion and last-minute rush I forgot to bring my portable scanner!
I had made things harder for myself because I was too busy being a spectator – glued to what I could hear and read from my scanner and computer. Lesson learned.
Epilogue: By the grace of God I returned home to a house still standing, and a reunion with one uninjured but hungry cat.
For television news coverage of the exodus as it was happening, see this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-R4RHcaqdY
KRCR TV LIVE COVERAGE overnight July 26-27, 2018 (Mary Lake area mentioned is close to my neighborhood):
KRCR Television Station Ordered to Evacuate:
KRCR Anchor Tamara Damonte Describes Evacuation:
Very Informative Coverage With Timeline, Maps, Film Footage, Etc. by Chico Station's Action News Now:
More, including tribute to those who died in the fire:
Remembering the Eight Lives Lost During the Carr Fire:
Simulation of the Fire's Spread (Excellent):