Horrific devastation witnessed with Carr Fire
For those who watch the news or read the newspapers, it’s hard to imagine an area of California that hasn’t been scorched by drought- and wind-fed wildfires in the past few years. But Marc Pelote, building inspector and code enforcement for Shasta County, Calif., said seeing the devastation in the media was his only experience, until a July day when he looked out the window of his home and saw a ball of fire approaching from the west.
With his wife out of town, it was up to him to decide whether to leave, and what to bring with him when he did. “What if someone told you, you had five minutes to get out of your home?” he said. “What would you take? Critical papers. Pets. Heirloom jewelry. The rest you can do without.”
As it turned out, he didn’t have to evacuate. The fire that randomly consumed homes and businesses for the next week or so took a turn in another dangerous direction, partly because it literally whipped into a three-mile-high firestorm, with 143-mph winds equivalent to an EF-3 tornado.
The Carr Fire, as it became known, was first reported in the afternoon of July 23, 2018, near Highway 299 and Carr Powerhouse Road. A vehicle towing a dual-axle travel trailer through the Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area blew a tire. The rim scraping the pavement caused sparks that lit dry vegetation along the highway. Hot weather winds caused the fire to spread quickly.
For a while, fire crews had the blaze under control. But when the fickle winds changed direction, “the responders knew they couldn’t tackle it alone,” said Jim Wright, building official for the city of Redding. The problem was the fire burned so quickly that the resulting smoke — visible throughout Northern California and the Central Valley down to Bakersfield, as well as in Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Idaho — made it impossible to continue to attack it from the air, Wright continued.
Meanwhile, winds toppled transmission towers, knocking out power and cutting off communication with responders in the field, many facing exhaustion while accruing hundreds of hours of overtime as they witnessed horrific devastation. By the time it was contained about a month after it began, the Carr Fire killed eight people, including three firefighters; claimed some 1,200 homes and businesses; and devastated nearly 230,000 acres of land, including one area Pelote said burned almost two feet deep into the ground. “It was absolute scorched earth,” Pelote said. “This is nothing we ever anticipated.”
For one, Pelote said, wildfire season generally is later in the year; the devastating fires in the Napa/Sonoma area last year occurred in October. For another, past wildfires had stayed in the heavily wooded areas and they never had come near town. Pictures show the fire’s path had no rhyme or reason, demolishing one home, while leaving two around it mostly unscathed, just like a tornado might. “Most of the homes were either destroyed, or relatively untouched,” Pelote said. “There was little in-between.”
Keswick, a neighborhood of a little more than 100 homes in the Redding area, was wiped out, according to Pelote. Those residents were among the nearly 40,000 who were evacuated as the fire swept through, some needing to find temporary housing. Others, who had inherited family campers or small vacation homes, may not even return, said Wright, preferring to take the insurance money — if there was any — and build elsewhere.
After a few weeks in the emergency center, Pelote said it’s pretty much back to regular business for him. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) and federal officials are overseeing the reclamation to determine when the scorched soil is ready for rebuild. For a time, Shasta County officials worked with those from Cal Fire, which contracts with local governments to help oversee major fires in over 31 million acres of California’s privately owned wildlands. Cal Fire responds to an average of more than 5,600 wildland fires each year, burning more than 172,000 acres on average.
With all the recent wildfires in California, building supplies are at a premium, officials say. But that will be a problem later, after the newly scorched land is sufficiently remediated and building plans are ready to be reviewed. At least for those who don’t decide to take the insurance money and head elsewhere.
Of the more than 250 homes that burnt down in Redding, Wright estimates 20 percent of the owners won’t be back. “It’ll be a little bit of a hit for a while,” he said. “But at some point, there will be a lot of buildable land for those who want to move here.”
Click here to view photos from the Shasta County & Trinity County, Calif., Carr Fire Site Visit 2018.