Exhausted firefighters in Shasta County continued their attack Friday night against the deadly Carr Fire, moving to stop the monster blaze from advancing on Redding but preparing emergency plans to evacuate the entire city of 91,000 residents if necessary.
By late Friday, the winds that had been predicted to sweep in from the northwest over the fire had yet to materialize in force, and officials hoped they would have time overnight to continue making progress against the fire, which ballooned to about 75 square miles by Friday night, destroyed 500 structures and damaged another 75.
Fire officials expected those numbers to increase in coming days, and late Friday said the 48,312-acre fire was only 5 percent contained.
Two people – Redding fire inspector Jeremy Stoke and an unidentified bulldozer operator working on contract to cut fire lines – were killed in the fire’s onslaught.
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No details were available about how Stoke died, but he reportedly had come back from vacation to help fight the blaze.
A contract worker who was working with the bulldozer operator who was killed said he was part of a team of four bulldozers digging rings around homes near Shasta Lake to try and protect them Thursday.
Sean Grimes, 51, said as they were working two massive whirlwinds of fire came down a hill. Grimes said he learned later that the victim’s bulldozer became stuck as the fire approached.
“He got caught up on some rocks and got stuck and couldn’t get off them,” Grimes said. “When it came over this mountain (the fire) did something different.
“It was crazy and the wind was so intense.”
Firefighters throughout the area were describing the fiercely erratic and fast-moving nature of the fire, which jumped the Sacramento River Thursday night and spread toward neighborhoods on the western edge of Redding.
Fire and air crews battled throughout the day and into the night using C-130 tankers, helicopters, hoses and shovels throughout the fire zone in an effort to halt the fire’s advances.
More than 38,000 residents were ordered evacuated, and fresh evacuations west of town were being ordered Friday night as officials emphasized that people had to be ready to get out at the first warning.
“This fire is scary to us, this is something we haven’t seen before in the city,” said Redding Police Chief Roger Moore. “It’s changing direction radically.”
Moore, who evacuated his family from their River Ridge home Thursday morning, spent the day helping with other evacuations and later learned his home had been destroyed.
He and Cal Fire officials emphasized late Friday that area residents heed evacuation orders and avoid what officials called the “chaos” of Thursday night’s exodus of thousands of people late at night.
“When this fire made a run early this morning we saw massive gridlock,” Moore said. “We can’t have that.”
Authorities issued red flag warnings about high winds in the area that could spark a new explosion of the Carr Fire, and warned that embers carried by the winds could travel a mile and create new spot fires.
“All it takes is one ember,” said Cal Fire incident commander Greg Bertelli. “If we get a 60 mph wind, who knows?”
But officials said clear weather Friday allowed them to strengthen fire lines in a bid to stop the monster blaze from reaching further into Redding or spreading east of Interstate 5 into new neighborhoods.
“It’s all west of I-5, and we don’t want it to get even near to I-5,” Cal Fire Deputy Chief Scott McLean said Friday afternoon. “People are working on strengthening the line, our aircraft are up and we’re supposed to see decent weather over the fires.
“We’re taking every advantage that we can.”
The fire was still threatening nearly 5,000 homes Friday night, and fire officials say its erratic, unpredictable nature is a sign of how much peril tinder-dry California faces from wildfires.
“There’s no normal anymore,” McLean said. “That doesn’t exist anymore.”
The Carr Fire spawned two exceptionally rare “fire tornadoes” created by intense heat as the fire generated its own weather, and its speed stunned fire officials as the blaze grew overnight.
Three firefighters from the Marin County Fire Department suffered burns to their ears, face and hands Thursday night as they were trying to protect structures and were hit with a “sudden blast of heat from vegetation adjacent to a structure,” the department said in a Facebook post.
The three — Scott Pederson, 37; Tyler Barnes 34; and Brian Cardoza, 26 — were treated at Redding’s Mercy Medical Center. One was later brought to the UC Davis Burn Center in Sacramento for further evaluation.
“There was literally a wall of flames coming into the city of Redding,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jonathan Cox said Friday morning.
The National Weather Service was predicting winds moving southeast up to 30 miles per hour in some areas and extended its red flag warning through 8 a.m. Monday.
Similar to last year’s devastating fires in Napa and Sonoma, the Carr Fire made its way into residential subdivisions on the west side of the city. In the Mary Lake neighborhood, at least half a dozen homes were burning Thursday night.
In Lake Redding Estates, at least 40 homes were completely destroyed, and the charred wreckage of cars, patios and wooden walls were still smoldering Friday morning.
Dozens of residents found their way back into their neighborhoods – some on bicycles – to salvage what they could from the remains as firefighters surveyed the damage.
On Harlan Drive, Kent Fiscus was shocked to find that his house, though damaged by an uprooted tree, was untouched by fire. Even the chickens in his yard were still alive. Directly across the street, his neighbors’ house had burned to the ground.
“It’s devastating, and I don’t know how we got so blessed,” Fiscus said, growing emotional as he looked at his damaged home. “I feel so bad for my neighbors across the street. How this place is still standing there, I’m blown away.”
Not far away, Dan Spraggins, 79, was examining the charred remains of his home – and what was left of his beloved ‘55 Chevy – and fretting about how he’d have to break the news to his wife, Chris.
“She’s not going to be too good when I show her pictures of this place,” Spraggins said as a friend of his offered a sympathetic hug. “This was such a beautiful home.”
Smoke still rose from the ashes of some destroyed homes, and the hillsides above the neighborhood were charred black from when the fire swept over the Sacramento River and roared down into the enclave.
Six miles to the northwest, the small town of Keswick, home to about 450, appeared almost entirely destroyed.
Cars with aluminum wheels melted onto the pavement stood between hollowed out shells of trailers and remnants of homes. On the way into town, a bleating goat wandered through the rubble. While Keswick Dam, which blocks the Sacramento River, was surrounded by charred manzanita, the structure itself seemed unharmed.
Pete Foote, a 64-year-old Redding resident, said he fled his Hallmark Drive home at about 8:45 p.m. Thursday after he saw “flames coming up from the river toward our house, and we got out.”
“We’re pretty sure it’s burned to the ground,” Foote said of his home of 20 years.
In Country Heights, a hilly and rural subdivision that counts as one of the last city neighborhoods on the edge of town, most neighbors had gone.
But resident Bryan Michiels was busy hooking up a newly-purchased fire hose to the hydrant in front of his ranch home. It snaked up the front of the stucco exterior and onto the roof, where Michiels planned to keep it running.
His mother was the first person to buy a lot in this scenic enclave, and built the house custom in 1991. He grew up there, and though he’d sent his wife to Red Bluff last night, he stayed with his two dogs, Bandit and Tippy.
He planned to continue his watch, though the occasional police cruiser was still going by Thursday night, the fire “sounded like a freight train coming,” he said. But he could still see fire engines on the nearby ridge and figured he was safe enough until they pulled out.
Like others, he could hear multiple propane tanks popping, and saw the fire swirl like a tornado, he said.
Fire officials said a “mechanical failure of a vehicle” started the blaze Monday at about 1:15 p.m., but had no other details. Officials also said it was impossible to predict when the fire might be contained.
About 3,200 homes in the Redding area were without power Friday afternoon, Pacific Gas & Electric reported, and authorities had stepped up patrols of neighborhoods because of reports of looting. No arrests were reported as of Friday afternoon.
McLean said firefighting aircraft were flying Friday morning despite an inversion that brought heavy smoke over the Redding area, and that in some areas firefighters had been able to get up to the edge of the flames to build containment lines.
The joint response included 110 engines from multiple agencies as well as 10 helicopters, with 1,748 firefighters on the ground.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who earlier declared a state of emergency for the fire, tweeted his condolences Friday morning for the loss of life and property in the fire.
“Our thoughts are with the loved ones of the 2 firefighters we lost fighting the & with the many Californians who have lost their homes,” he wrote.
Displaced residents were being directed to five evacuation centers, including one at the Rolling Hills Casino in Corning, general manager Steve Neely said.
“We’re still taking folks, we’re filling up, as you might expect,” Neely said Friday morning.
The casino, 45 miles south of Redding, opened the doors of its conference center, as well as its equestrian facility, and was providing food, water, cool shelter and some bedding for residents, as well as their pets and horses.
“Honestly, we’re more of a makeshift, just-get-out-of-the-heat place to come,” Neely said. “We’re obviously not equipped with full beds and everything else, but we do have blankets.”
Smoke blocked visibility and filled the air with an acrid scent Friday afternoon as evacuations remained in place and displaced people began looking for longer-term solutions.
Hotels were full, with some people booking rooms for more than a week, uncertain if they had homes to return to.
At The Marriott TownePlace Suites, receptionist Kayla Lane was at work despite having been evacuated three times herself. She doesn’t know if her home, near a local high school, survived.
“My entire life is in my car,” Lane said. But with so many people needing to be checked in, she felt she had to work.
“This is primarily firefighters and evacuees,” Lane said. “So I can’t reconcile myself to not coming in.”
Local resident Ineetta Stone, 66, had a mix of exhaustion and worry on her face as she stood next to her son’s car early Friday at the Shasta College evacuation center. It was just before 1 a.m in the parking lot, where dozens of evacuees raced Thursday night.
Smoke had turned the moon dark red and ash drifted through the air, leaving a light dust on the pavement. At around 9 p.m. Stone and her husband, Vernon Stone, 84, had received an automated call ordering them out of their home.
In the frenzy to leave, Vernon Stone fell and broke his hip while his wife was checking on a neighbor, she said. It had been fractured before two months earlier, and the accident turned their evacuation into another medical emergency. An ambulance rushed him to the hospital. They don’t know if their home survived.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t even know.”
It was an even more frantic scene a few yards away from her in the Shasta College lot a few hours after midnight, where a group of workers from a nursing home, the Kindred Transitional Care and Rehabilitation Center, raced to unload wheelchairs.
The chairs were for the 105 patients bused to Shasta College from the facility, which had escaped the flames. The workers quickly headed back into the evacuation zone to grab mattresses from the facility.
Some evacuees tried to keep things upbeat. Two couples at the evacuation center at Shasta College, Steve and Donna Casey and Greg and Robin Johnson, sat on the bed of a pickup truck sipping wine.
Behind them in the pickup were a couple of bags of clothes. The Johnsons’ pet bird clung to its carrying crate between them; their two hunting dogs sat at their feet. Neither couple knew whether their house still stood.
“Tonight, we drink a glass of wine,” Steve Casey said, clinking glasses with Robin Johnson. “Tomorrow, we play house roulette.”