Dateline: Hell, complete with flames, smoke, and ashes

After nearly four weeks of daily highs over 100°, many over 110°, and a few as hot as 115°, Mother Nature could take no more. Monday afternoon, what has now come to be known as the Carr Fire burst into flame in a remote corner of far Northern California, known quaintly as “French Gulch,” about 15 miles west of Redding. The fire didn’t get much attention, at least from the media, until Wednesday or so when Redding began to fill with smoke.

But even then, it wasn’t all that remarkable. Sadly, smoke-filled days are pretty common here in mid-to-late summer. Because it’s so hot and dry, it’s pretty easy to start a fire. People claim that mere sparks from a dragging chain, say on a boat trailer, can start a grass fire, which then grows quickly. I’m a little skeptical about sparking chains myself, but the grass is so dry that it could easily burn from a carelessly thrown cigarette, or by contact with a hot catalytic converter from an off-road driver. Or really from any little source of ignition.

So the mere fact of fire wasn’t that remarkable. But this fire continued to grow, and by Thursday, the entire north valley was full of fairly dense smoke. Thursday night I went to Trader Joe’s after dinner, and on my way filmed a short video of the smoke plume from Highway 5, and then took some more video from a hillside overlooking the Sundial Bridge, one of our two famous landmarks. (The other one is Shasta Dam, which I’ve written about here.) (I’ll post the video later, as it’s taking forever to render.)

During the week, I had made plans to go to see friends in San Francisco, with a planned Friday departure. However, by Friday morning, the fire had grown to roughly 24,000 acres, and there was talk of evacuation in the air. Normally, I’d not give a second thought to danger from a wildfire. We live in a very suburban area, with houses on quarter-acre lots, surrounded by well-watered lawns and green trees. However, last year’s firestorm that destroyed Santa Rosa killed whatever complacency that I might have harbored about safety in the suburbs.

What do do? After exhausting all the other possible choices, I decided to do the right thing and to stay here with my mother in case an evacuation was ordered. By noon, it was pretty clear that even here we were under threat. Ashes had been falling all night onto the property, and my mother’s car was pretty well speckled. Homes in northwest Redding had already burned, and the fire jumped the mighty Sacramento River. The fire was now 48,000 acres, or 75 square miles, or an area one-and-a-half times the size of either San Francisco or Boston.

Though we don’t want to evacuate, it seems like a lesser evil compared to dying a fiery death. So we packed the car for evacuation. All the family photos are now in the back of my car, along with tools, an air mattress (God only know where we’d stay), and various other essential items. Fortunately the car is full of gasoline and ready to go. We’ve also both got suitcases packed, and our important documents are at hand. I made a video of each room in the house describing all of our possessions in case we would need to file an insurance claim. Hopefully we’ll never need that video, but it’s good to be prepared.

Smoky Sunrise over Mom’s House, 10:00AM Redding, CA 7/28/18

By about 2:30 pm, our neighbor’s son and wife were ordered to leave their house. They live about a mile and a half from us, across a good-sized four-lane state highway, which also has a railroad track running along it. That was pretty unnerving, but we told ourselves that Highway 273 would provide an effective firebreak. Neighbor’s son’s house is still not on fire, so we continue to hope.

We are also in the uncomfortable position of having three cars, but only one driver. So we will have to leave two cars behind. One of them is my mother’s 2005 Mazda 6 wagon, which is, uh, politely speaking, not exactly a prime example of that model. And she’s no longer driving anyway. But the other car we’ll have to leave is my beloved Mercedes SLK, which I’ve recently put a ton of work into. Over the summer I’ve taken off and had repainted the fenders, and spruced up various other bits in a sort of “mid-life refresh.” So I thought hard and decided that I could park both of those cars somewhere in the neighborhood where there were few, if any trees. Fortunately, I found a spot down the street where the neighbor has gravel instead of a lawn (common here in this sun-parched area), and no trees. There, I figured, the cars might have a fighting chance.

18 Hours of Ash Fall. Weird orangy light is what it looks like here.

Plea to Not Ticket or Tow Car

After that, we just sat glued to the local news for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very helpful. There were lots of interviews with people whose housed had burned down. While my heart goes out to these victims, such interviews aren’t really particularly helpful to the rest of us. I’d be much more interested in hearing how close the fire is. (CalFire only updates the map once a day). And I’d like someone to give some kind of odds as to whether we’ll really need to evacuate or not. At 4:00, CalFire gave a press conference that was so chock-full of bureaucratic platitudes that they were almost completely successful in not saying anything, despite talking for an hour.

Big Red Area is the Fire as of Saturday Morning. We are Uncomfortably Close

This morning, we awoke to a truly ridiculous amount of smoke. The sunrise was barely visible, and it looked like twilight outside until about 10:00 AM. By 1:00 PM, you could look up and stare directly at the sun without so much as either sunglasses or discomfort. The sunlight everywhere is oddly orange. When CalFire updated their fire map, the fire had grown to 84,000 acres or 131 square miles, which is roughly an area 11.5 by 11.5 miles, a little more than a third of the area of New York City. Fortunately, the light winds had mostly died down. But the ash fall had increased. Now we had full-sized, charred leaves, pine needles, and other bits of debris landing in the yard.

Meanwhile, every part of the area west of 273 has been evacuated. There’s a little strip mall on 273 that has a grocery store, car parts, dollar store, etc, and that’s now been closed. Gas stations are running out of gasoline. The good news is that the fire has not advanced far beyond the northern side of Placer Road, which is shown in the map below as the second dotted line from the top.

Evacuated Areas — Practically on Our Doorstep

And we continue to wait. I’ve decided that we will evacuate either if we lose electrical power, or if the police tell us to leave. Though it feels cooler than normal here due to the smoke, the official temperature is still 106°, and we can’t hold out long without a/c. For now, we are OK. We’re trying to keep smoke out of the house by entering through the garage. Stores are still open, and we are reasonably well-provisioned.

But if my mother’s house burns down, we are going to go to Boston. After all, why live like a refugee in hot, dry California when you’ve got a perfectly good house in Boston?  And while I don’t want my mother’s house to go, it’s a nerve-wracking place to live. During the spring of 2017 I worried we would be flooded by a swollen Sacramento River. Now I’m afraid that the house will go in a firestorm. Oh well, at least we don’t have to shovel snow.

For now, we are OK. Pray for us. Please.

I made a video on Thursday of the earlier stages of the fire and the smoke plume. It’s processing and I’ll upload it later. Thanks for reading.