From the frontline: Escaping the Carr wildfire

“‘Monster’ Carr Fire seventh most destructive in California history – and growing”

That was the USA Today newspaper headline on July 31, 2018, about a bushfire. As I write this, my home is directly in the path of this “monster”.

In May this year, after 35 years in Australia, my wife and I moved back to the United States, to Redding in California, where we were born, into a house my grandfather built in the 1950s. The house is on a bush block that hasn’t been well maintained for many years and is badly overgrown with brush and pine forest.

One of my long-term goals is to clear the brush and make the property more bushfire safe.

I know a bit about bushfire safety, having lived for the past 17 years in a house in the Wombat Forest, about 10 kilometres outside Daylesford, in central Victoria.

I well remember the hot, dry month of February 2009, when the state was struck by a series of bushfires of startling speed and ferocity. My home was threatened by a fire that swept up from the south and blackened about 2000 hectares.

Having then lived in the house for eight years, I had closely followed the advice of the Country Fire Authority and believed myself to be prepared to defend against a bushfire. Although the flames only came to about a kilometre from my property, I saw embers fall from the evening sky and felt that my defensive efforts may have contributed to my home emerging unscathed from the event.

In the aftermath of what became known as the Black Saturday bushfires, I read a news report concerning a family whose experiences nearly mirrored my own: they had the equipment and the plan and thought they were ready for fire. They all perished.

The next time a fire was reported in my vicinity, I gathered up my family and evacuated. No questions asked.

Those experiences, although frightening, have proved to be good training for what we’ve been going through in the past week.

We’re now caught up in the Carr Fire, so named because it started near the Judge Francis Carr Powerhouse, at the head of Whiskeytown Lake, in northern California, about 300 kilometres north of San Francisco. The blaze was sparked into being on Monday, July 23. Firefighters were unable to contain it, and by Friday it had consumed 18,000 heavily forested, mountainous hectares, with only 5% containment. And then overnight it more than doubled in size, and containment was reduced to 2%.

To get to my house, the fire needed to travel almost due east over about 25 kilometres and cross the  powerfully flowing Sacramento River. With that in mind, on Thursday morning I found time to play nine holes of golf with my father, brother, and next-door neighbour, despite the forecast for temperatures in the mid-40s Celsius.

But when I returned home I was relieved to find that my wife, Carol, had packed travel bags for both of us.

On Thursday afternoon we knew it was time to go, as we watched a huge plume of smoke thrust into the western sky, seemingly just over the next ridge.

{%recommended 6644%}

We thought we might shelter with my parents, who live just a few kilometres south of us but well removed from bushland. But what usually took 10 minutes to drive became a 25-minute ordeal as officials enacted mandatory evacuation orders and roads became clogged with cars. The fire had jumped the river.

By the time we got to my parents’ house, our plan for shelter had become a mandated flight. Initially uncertain about the need to leave, the electricity failed, the air-conditioning went off, and my parents left their home willingly.

Now on the road, however, we found all access going east, west and south blocked. The only way out was north, and all the roads were clogged with fleeing residents.

What a day ago had been a handsome town of 90,000 was now bathed in a hellish deep red glow as fires climbed the hills to Redding’s west, and 38,000 evacuees took to the now darkened roads in 36-degree Celsius heat. Roads going south and east quickly became clogged – west was completely cut off by fire – leaving north as the only way out. 

“We’ve seen fire conditions and weather conditions like we’ve never seen before, ” Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, told the San Jose Mercury News newspaper. “It’s quite an event to stay out in front of.”

After battling through traffic, we took refuge with friends in the city of Mt Shasta, about 80 kilometres north of Redding. From there we scrambled for information as the fire fanned out in all directions – including its inexorable march towards our house.

“We are seeing more destructive, larger fires burning at rates that we have historically never seen,” Jonathan Cox, regional battalion chief with the state Cal Fire agency, told the CNN news service.

Although containment of the fire had risen to more than 20% by Tuesday, high temperatures, low humidity and increased winds are all in the forecast, setting the stage for more explosive fire behaviour, Chris Harvey, with the Cal Fire Incident Management Team, told CNN.

It has now grown to more than 40,000 hectares, claimed at least six lives, and destroyed more than 800 homes.

The US has a population of more than 300 million, and nearly all of its news media have devolved into national organisations. When this “monster” broke out, it took these organisations three days to catch up. 

Local media, such as they are, struggled and mostly failed to provide timely, accurate information. One commercial radio station took the initiative and began 24-hour broadcasting of fire-related information, but relied on listeners to call in with reports and queries. Officials from fire, law enforcement and state and local government agencies initially were not forthcoming with much-needed information, although that situation has been resolved.

The people fighting the fires, and running the barricades, and patrolling the streets, have been magnificent. California is a volatile place, much like Australia. It burns, every summer, it burns. This lack of communications preparedness, in this so-called information age, is unacceptable. 

Postscript: On July 31, evacuation orders for my neighbourhood were lifted. We are free to return home, although we are still uncertain about whether our house still stands.

Please login to favourite this article.