The Carr Fire in northern California has slowed, as it moves past the city of Redding into rural areas to the north and west. As some evacuated residents are allowed back into their neighborhoods, they tell harrowing stories of panicked escapes, homes lost and lives changed forever.
Amber Bey stands across the street from her home in Redding. The house is intact. But she hasn’t been inside in days.
"I’m still under mandatory evacuation," she says. "No idea when we’re going to be able to go home."
Bey says last Thursday night, she knew there was wildfire at the nearby Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, but says that’s not uncommon. That evening, at home, she kept hearing sirens.
"I wasn’t too concerned at first, but the sirens never stopped, they kept going on and on and on."
She stepped outside to see what was going on.
"Several people were on their rooftops spraying with hoses, and as I looked to the west, I could actually see what I know now was the fire tornado."
Stoked by high temperatures, strong winds and tinder dry fuels, the fire had become a raging whirlwind, creating its own powerful updraft. The electricity had gone out so she used her phone for a flashlight as she threw some photos, important documents and her dog into her car and fled ...
Brian Brown and Michelle Privett had heeded warnings to be ready to evacuate. Still, they left their house in the River Ridge neighborhood Thursday morning not too concerned. But that evening, the fire suddenly jumped the Sacramento River and the power went out in parts of town. They rushed back to their home to find a scene of chaos.
"My next-door neighbor was on his motorcycle," Brown says. "He had gotten his kids and everything out earlier. Basically screaming at me, 'Get out! Get out!'”
Without power, their garage door wouldn’t open, so Brown climbed through a window. They quickly grabbed a computer and some other valuables and ran out the front door.
"A police officer then pulls down there and he yells at us, “Get out NOW!”. Brown says. "And the last thing as we were getting out of there and shutting the door there’s three helicopters right above our house, ready to drop water. And we were outta there.”
The next morning, they returned to their street.
"We got around the road closures and we got to go up there and see it and … it was … it’s gone."
Now, the couple is living in a hotel while they sort things out and survey the landscape of their new life. Brown says they’re not looking forward to the next step …
"They want you – us – to, 'Hey, you’re gonna have to clean your lot, scoop it all up' and … Y’know and I know that’s gonna be real hard because there’s all those memories and things that y’know … It’s gone … "
They have plenty of company. As officials assess the damage, the toll of destroyed homes has climbed to over 1 ,000—and they’re still counting.
Redding resident Michelle Irvine evacuated safely and her home is unscathed. Still, she says, in a city where about half the population had to leave, everybody’s got a story.
"I don’t think there’s anybody in town that hasn’t been touched by it," she says. "They either personally were evacuated, or they’re housing 30 people they know that were."
Going forward, Irvine says, Redding and its community will be living with impacts of the Carr fire for years to come.