An explosive wildfire that roared with little warning into a Northern California city claimed a second life and thousands more people abandoned their homes, some of them slipping out just ahead of the walls of flame, authorities said Friday.
In all, an estimated 37,000 people have fled from the so-called Carr Fire, which began Monday and tripled in size overnight Thursday amid scorching temperatures, low humidity and high winds. Fire officials warned that the blaze would probably burn deeper into urban areas before there was any hope of containing it.
A day earlier, the flames turned the sky orange while sweeping through the historic Gold Rush town of Shasta and nearby Keswick, then jumping the Sacramento River into Redding, a city of about 92,000 people and the largest in the region.
Steve Hobson was one of the last to leave Lake Redding Drive. A former urban and wild land firefighter three decades ago, he planned to stay behind to save his house. But the heat burned his skin, and the smoke made it hard to breathe. He could feel the fire sucking the air from around him, whipping up swirling embers in a “fire tornado,” he said.
Police pounded on doors telling everyone to leave.
The flames on the distant hillside looked like solar flares on the sun, he said. When it came time to flee, he had to punch through walls of burning embers on both sides of the street. A tree fell right in front of him.
“I didn’t know if I’d make it so I just got in the middle of the street, went down the middle of the street through the embers and the smoke and made it past,” Hobson said.
His perimeter fence burned along with a backyard shed and everything inside it — Christmas ornaments, china and old televisions. But his house made it through the harrowing night.
At least 65 structures have been destroyed, and 5,000 other buildings were threatened, fire officials said.
The fire is “taking down everything in its path,” said Scott McLean, a CalFire spokesman for the crews battling the blaze.
A firefighter with the Redding Fire Department was killed in Shasta County. Another firefighter hired to try to contain the flames with a bulldozer was killed Thursday, authorities said.
Some Redding residents who had not been under evacuation orders were caught off guard and had to flee with little notice.
“When it hit, people were really scrambling,” McLean said. “There was not much of a warning.”
The blaze, which was apparently sparked by a mechanical issue involving a vehicle, was so fearsome that fire crews in Redding for a time abandoned any hope of containing the flames and instead focused on saving lives.
“We’re not fighting a fire. We’re trying to move people out of the path of it because it is now deadly, and it is now moving at speeds and in ways we have not seen before in this area,” said Jonathan Cox, battalion chief with Cal Fire.
Late Thursday, crews found the body of the bulldozer operator who had been hired privately to clear vegetation in the blaze’s path. He was the second bulldozer operator killed in a California blaze in less than two weeks.
“It’s just chaotic. It’s wild,” McLean said. “There’s a lot of fire, a lot of structures burning.”
Firefighters tried in vain to build containment around the blaze Thursday, but flames kept jumping their lines, he said.
Brett Gouvea, incident commander of the crews battling the fire, urged residents to pay close attention to the blaze, which he said was “moving with no regard for what’s in its path.”
With fire burning in the distance Liz Williams, 33, packed her car Thursday morning, just in case, even though her neighbors said it would never reach them.
When she got home from work, the flames were closing in. By evening, an orange glow appeared on the nearby hillside and ferocious winds picked up. It was time to go.
“I’ve never experienced something so terrifying in my life. Nothing could prepare you for something like this,” Williams said.
She loaded up her 11-year-old daughter and her boyfriend’s 9-year-old, but she didn’t get far. She was promptly stuck in traffic as all her neighbors crowded the main road out. Cars honked and backed up. Drivers and police yelled at each other.
As flames came down the adjacent hillside, she got aggressive.
“Finally I just went to the left and jumped up on the sidewalk and drove,” Williams said.
She estimated that it took an hour to go a little over a mile. She wanted to get as far away as possible, but ultimately stayed with her boyfriend’s family in a safer part of town.
“I didn’t know if the fire was just going to jump out behind a bush and grab me and suck me in,” Williams said. “I wanted out of here.”