The Carr Fire burst into residential neighborhoods of Redding, just as the wine country fire devastated urban Santa Rosa last fall — but with one huge difference.
Santa Rosa’s fire left nearly a dozen people dead within hours, and many survivors said they never received official emergency warnings until it was too late.
In Redding, residents said they were alerted. The immediate death toll from the Carr Fire was two: a city firefighter and a private bulldozer operator.
Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said at least 38,000 people were under evacuation orders in and around Redding as of Friday afternoon, one day after the Carr Fire crossed the Sacramento River and burned portions of west Redding. The evacuations have been hectic and hurried at times, but largely without incident.
What prevented a repeat of the Santa Rosa tragedy was timing, as much as anything.
Santa Rosa “took place when people were sound asleep,” said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean. “This fire (in Redding) was late afternoon, early evening hours, when it turned into the conflagration. You had people coming home from work.”
While some residents received robo-calls or “Code Red” text alerts, others got notice the old-fashioned way. Law enforcement personnel fanned out across neighborhoods in west Redding, where the fire first reached the city, to urge people to leave. McLean said firefighters temporarily abandoned their posts on the fire lines to go “shoulder-to-shoulder with police” and assist with notifications.
“I thought the officials did everything they could,” said Jill Hauser, a middle-school teacher who was alerted by a robo-call and someone banging on the door of her home west of Redding early Friday.
The Redding evacuations haven’t been glitch-free, to be sure. City Manager Barry Tippin said the Code Red system malfunctioned Thursday morning, sending a premature evacuation order to one neighborhood. That neighborhood got a genuine evacuation order later in the day. With an estimated 8,000 homes sitting empty, there have been reports of looting, he added, but no arrests have been made.
He said Redding police tried to smooth the exodus from affected areas by allowing motorists to drive on both sides of some streets.
Nevertheless, “it was gridlock and pandemonium for a while,” Tippin said. McLean said he was told it took some evacuees more than two hours to reach Red Bluff, normally a half-hour jaunt down I-5.
Bosenko, the Shasta sheriff, said some drivers panicked in the heavy traffic, and one hit-and-run driver struck a deputy’s vehicle in the rush to evacuate. The deputy wasn’t hurt, he said.
The sheriff warned remaining residents to have their bags packed, with important papers, medicine and other necessities, in case the evacuation orders expanded.
“When this fire made a run early (Friday) morning, we saw massive gridlock; we can’t have that,” said Redding Police Chief Roger Moore.
The Carr Fire was only 3 percent contained, with 4,978 homes and other buildings threatened, as of Friday afternoon.
“It’s way too early; this fire’s still growing, we’re working with all our agencies,” said Brad Alexander of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “Notifications could be coming today, tonight, tomorrow.”
Preparation obviously helps. By the time the Carr Fire jumped the Sacramento River and invaded the west side of Redding on Thursday, the fire was already three days old.
In the Lake Redding Estates neighborhood, Alisha and Bill Robinson explained that they had been following the news reports for days. “We were prepared; we’d packed up,” Alisha Robinson said. “We have six cats and a dog so we had everybody all ready to go.” Their home, unlike many on their street, survived the fire.
By contrast, the deadliest of the wine country fires, the Tubbs Fire, started from scratch at 9:45 p.m. By early the next morning, 11 people had died already and entire sections of Santa Rosa were scorched.
More than anything, last October’s fires exposed one of the weak links in emergency alert systems — most of them have been built around an antiquated “reverse 911” system that only reaches landline phones. Many residents of Sonoma and Napa counties, relying exclusively on cell phones, got no warning at all. More than 40 people died in the October fires.
“You’re reaching a certain number of people, which is decreasing every day, because more and more people are giving up their landlines,” said Jonathan Kramer, a Los Angeles lawyer and telecommunications expert.
In many counties, including Shasta, those with cell phones can receive emergency alerts through programs such as Code Red.
But the programs are optional; people have to register their phones with the county or some other local authority in order to receive the messages. And if a cell tower is toppled by fire, service weakens and the messages could get delayed. It isn’t known how many Shasta residents are enrolled in the Code Red system.
Denise Yergenson, who lives next to a canyon on the west side of Redding, was watching the sun set Thursday and wondering if she and her family should leave. Just before 10 p.m., police swarmed her community with lights and sirens, saying there was a mandatory evacuation in effect.
“Police were everywhere,” she said.
Minutes later she got a robo-call on her phone and a text message confirming the mandatory order.
Standing on the corner of Benton Drive and Quartz Hill Road on Redding’s west side Friday, 71-year-old John Hyland recalled the utter chaos of police officers descending on his River Ridge neighborhood ordering people out just hours earlier.
“It was pretty exasperating, really,” he said.
As Hyland described the scene, a city employee named Devon Hedemark approached him with the bad news: Practically every house on his street had been destroyed.
Hedemark told The Sacramento Bee that as power went out in many neighborhoods, law enforcement officials had to fan out across the area to spread the evacuation orders. “Power goes out; 10 minutes later they come through with bullhorns,” he said.
Don Anderson said the evacuation around his north Redding home was chaotic. “It happened so fast. Police were running, literally running down the street and yelling.” Although he didn’t have his cellphone with him, he saw hordes of neighbors running out of their houses all at once, presumably after getting some form of mass alert.
“All of a sudden, people were bailing,” he said. The fire had roared over the river and was a block from his street when he, his wife and grandchild left.
The drive out was hectic, too, he said, but he took a side road to avoid most of the traffic. “The streets were all backed up. Literally, people at the end of that line, that fire was on their tail.”
The exodus from Redding was similar, albeit on a smaller scale, to the largest California evacuation in recent memory.
The evening of Feb. 12, 2017, an estimated 180,000 residents downstream of Oroville Dam had to flee amid fears that the dam’s emergency flood-control spillway was going to crumble.
The evacuation order, which came just a few hours after state officials said they believed the spillway was safe, sparked hours of tumult. Highways 70 and 99, the main roads in and out of mostly rural Butte County, turned into parking lots for several hours.
Later, county officials said they had tweaked their evacuation system so people living closest to the dam would be evacuated first. They said they hope the staggered approach would smooth out the traffic problems.
Alexander, the Office of Emergency Services spokesman, said it’s too soon to know whether the evacuations around Redding had gone as well as they could. “It would be way, way premature,” he said.