Jubilant and relieved residents began to return to their homes in Redding on Monday, four days after fleeing for their lives from the Carr Fire that swept in Thursday night and laid waste to huge swaths of the community.
The “repopulation” of neighborhoods began Monday with hundreds of homeowners being allowed to pass through National Guard checkpoints and return to areas that had been evacuated but not destroyed in the blaze.
“Hallelujah!” Roxanne Beasley exclaimed Monday morning as she thrust her hands into the air and returned to her home in the city’s White Hawk subdivision. “Thank God for a safe home.”
Beasley was one of 38,000 people forced to flee their Redding-area homes Thursday night after the blaze jumped the Sacramento River and roared into neighborhoods, where it destroyed at least 818 homes and killed at least six people.
Beasley’s home was safe, but ash from the fire was everywhere as other residents streamed into the streets, honking their horns in joy and stopping to roll down car windows and chat with neighbors about their good fortune.
Beasley said she had an hour to pack Thursday, grabbing videos, birth certificates and hand-drawn pictures made by her four children. She and her husband dumped belongings into garbage bags they stuffed into the back of their Ford SUV and attached a trailer and speed boat to the back. Then they grabbed a 90-year-old neighbor and raced out of the area as the light from the flames could be seen streets away.
“You pack up what you think is important to your heart, you get your kids and your pets, and then you think about all the things you left behind,” Beasley said.
She and her family fled to her parents’ home on the east side of town. Her parents are out of town, and she ended up staying there with friends who had lost their home. Eventually, 12 people and five pets filled up the home.
Beasley, who works at a Redding-area school, said her vice principal lost her home and that she knows 25 to 30 others whose homes also burned.
“I’ve heard the term ‘survivors guilt,’ and now I feel like I know what that truly means,” she said.
Beasley, who left without any spare clothing for herself, said the tipping point for her emotionally came Sunday night. She drove to the National Guard checkpoint at the bottom of Teton Road trying to get home but was turned away.
Monday morning that was all forgotten as she and others marveled at the fact that hundreds of homes in the subdivision came through unscathed.
One street over, Pete Metz was pulling into his home.
“It’s nice,” Metz said. “It feels better, it’s relieving that I’ll get to sleep in my own bed again and have clothes.”
Metz had been at work as the flames approached Thursday, and by the time he got home he had half an hour to pack and get out, as well as to snap a photo of huge flames approaching.
“I thought for sure this neighborhood was going to be gone,” Metz said.
Anxious residents have been pleading for days to be allowed back in to check on their homes, search for lost pets and move out of evacuation centers where they have been living. Fears of looters roaming the neighborhoods have exacerbated those concerns, and authorities have stepped up patrols and made several arrests in recent days.
“We have flooded your neighborhoods, our evacuated neighborhoods, with officers, lots of officers, officers on motorcycles, on foot and in cars...,” Redding Police Chief Roger Moore told residents at a community meeting late Monday. “We are all united on this front.”
Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett vowed to prosecute looters, and said she also will go after anyone engaging in price gouging. Her office already has received 60 price-gouging complaints, she said, noting that state law forbids raising prices more than 10 percent during an emergency.
Many residents remain locked out of their neighborhoods by police or National Guard roadblocks, and are growing frustrated.
Mark Stoeper was evacuated Thursday, and since then he has been studying heat maps and Cal Fire maps of fire lines wondering if the blaze hit his remote home near Igo, about 10 miles southwest of Redding.
He has tried several times to get in, but has been turned back by law enforcement blockades each time.
His area is not among those where evacuations were lifted Monday morning, but he said he intends to drive out again and see if he can get through.
“We don’t know if our house is still standing,” Stoeper said. “We’re hopeful. But I’m a ‘show-me guy’ before I’m comfortable.
“Law enforcement has been pretty effective in keeping people out, but we’re going down there and test the perimeter a bit to see if we can get in.”
Several days of progress against the deadly fire have allowed firefighters to turn their attention to more rural areas west of Redding, and containment of the fire was at 23 percent Monday evening.
“We’re starting to feel really good about where we’re going,” said Cal Fire Deputy Chief Bret Gouvea.
The fire has burned 103,772 acres so far – 162 square miles – and killed at least six people, including a firefighter and a bulldozer operator.
Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said 19 people remain missing, 10 in the county jurisdiction and nine in the city, but authorities believe some of those may be people who evacuated and have not checked back in with family. At peak, there were 48 people reported missing.
Officials also announced creation of a new live damage assessment map online to give residents an idea of where homes have been destroyed and damaged.
Authorities had issued a red flag warning for high winds for the last several days, but that expired at 8 a.m. Monday and the lack of high winds – which has been pushing embers as much as a mile in front of the flames – allowed firefighters to strengthen containment lines through the weekend.
Firefighters still have roughly 100 miles of containment lines that need to be built, and Cal Fire urged residents to remain on alert for shifting winds or new evacuation orders.
“Things are getting better,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Heather Williams said. “The containment’s up to 20 percent, which is good.
“Any time you’re able to repopulate that’s a good sign. But, unfortunately, the weather and other conditions can change at a moment’s notice.”
Williams estimated that firefighters may need another week or two to contain the blaze, but added that making such estimates is difficult, especially considering the steep terrain west of Redding that the fire has moved into.
“You could see evacuations today if something shifts,” she said.
But those residents who were allowed back in Monday were thinking more about getting back into their homes and offering thanks to the firefighters who had helped save them.
Kenny Campbell returned to his Country Heights subdivision after having only five minutes to flee Thursday night as police raced through warning over loudspeakers that residents had to get out immediately.
He was unpacking his SUV and trailer filled with tubs of clothing and other belongings as Redding Fire Marshal Craig Whittner drove up and offered a plastic red fire helmet, a coloring book and some crayons to Campbell’s son, Cayden, 6.
Campbell walked over, shook Whittner’s hand, then hugged him.