Climate chaos strikes, again, this time deep into the heart of Redding, California, the regional hub and commercial center for Northern California. The Carr Fire started near the cross of Hwy. 299 and the Carr Powerhouse Road on Monday, July 23rd.
Your guy-on-the-street, HunterX, is here with exclusive photos and sources from the firefight going on now in Shasta County. The fire was very active the first couple of days, but was restricted to the mountains west of Whiskeytown Lake.
My sources in Whiskeytown tell me the fire was being managed by a short Cal Fire Incident Management Team (IMT), and that moderate fire behavior was observed for the first couple of days. The focus of operations seemed to be on facilitating a heavy PG&E presence attempting to replace numerous lost power poles. Over the past two nights, however, the fire picked up some kind of easterly downcanyon flow that has caused extreme fire behavior. This is likely a thermal low pressure developing at the head of the Sacramento River Valley, baking under high heat, which then drew in cool laminar marine air over the Coast Range, in this case right though Buckhorn Summit, giving the fire a big boost, especially in the evening.
On the evening of the 24th, firefighters were pushed as far back as Whiskey Creek, and yesterday evening all hell broke loose, with the fire pushing past Whiskeytown Lake and as far into Redding as the Cal Fire station at Hwy. 299 and Iron Mtn. Road. The Record Searchlight reports that Oak Bottom Marina was destroyed along with 40 boats. the photo is quite impressive with boat hulls burned down to the water line.
This midday VIIRS below very troubling, and though some of the returns are from the column, it’s obvious that the column is bent over town. My sources tell me that the fire has four distinct heads, and that firefighters are scrambling all over the west part of town, trying to pick up the many spot fires. My friends live on Victoria Lane, off Hwy. 299 and they have been evacuated. You can follow the action on the FireIntel thread here.
Update #1 10:00 am Friday, July 27
In fire behavior that surprised many, the Carr Fire tore into Redding last night, devastating parts of West Redding and Keswick. The fire is currently reported to be 44,450 acres in size and only 3% contained. This fire has moved ten to twelve miles in the past 48 hours, and it has become a killer. Many neighborhoods are under mandatory evacuation orders, as well as two hospitals. Chaos was the rule as citizens in flight and firefighters used the same roads for ingress and evacuation. One Redding television station was shut down in mid-broadcast so staff could be evacuated, Amtrak service is disrupted. Then the tragic news of two additional firefighter fatalities in California, a second dozer operator in a span of less than two weeks, this time a private for hire dozer, and a City of Redding firefighter. The New York Times is currently reporting “dozens of buildings”, while earlier this morning the number was only 15.
Dry conditions and triple-digit temperatures added fuel to the fast-moving blaze, known as the Carr Fire, as it marched eastward, swept over the Sacramento River and pushed into the outskirts of Redding, the largest city in the region.
In truth nobody knows how many homes and outbuildings might have been destroyed, until the smoke clears and it’s safe enough to go in and take a look. With downed live electric lines and potentially compromised gas lines, it is very hazardous to enter the area. It would not be surprising, given the IR imagery, if the number of homes lost does not reach the hundreds, including entire trailer home parks leveled, as they are wont to do, given the tight packing of buildings. Furthermore, given last night’s chaos, it would not be surprising to hear of more fatalities from civilians fleeing. In that regard, this fire is eerily reminiscent of last year’s Thomas Fire that burned into Santa Rosa, where fire swept through entire subdivisions. Citizens, even now, are using all means at their disposal to try and determine if their homes have been destroyed or if they were spared. There are few official sources of information, so Facebook and other social media try to fill the gap. My best friends are in my hopes and prayers, right now, as it has been confirmed that their house between Old Shasta and Redding was consumed. Early Friday a Facebook post suggested only two homes remained standing on their street, and the previous evening’s night’s fixed-wing infrared detection seemed to validate that. They got word later on Friday that their home was lost.
It’s important to remember, that just because a home is under the red overlay (signifying an intense heat signature), it doesn’t mean that that home is gone. The abundant fine fuels, grass primarily, around many of these homes could flash over quickly, and if a patrolling fire engine is there to extinguish the edge of deck or other flammable material that could carry to the home, disaster could be avoided, but there are only so many wildland fire engines, and operations are focused on finding some anchor point or line to be held.
The AP is reporting that “thousands of terrified residents fled in miles-long traffic jams,” and that “Residents in the western part of Redding who had not been under evacuation orders were caught off guard and had to flee with little notice.” Even more amazing is fresh evidence that there was a vast cyclonic flow over the plume as it descended into Redding last night with ripped up light poles as evidence of “mesoscale tornadic-like winds in unburned neighborhoods.” This is further supported by many anecdotal sightings of large firewhirls and “fire tornadoes”
“Really, we’re in a life-saving mode right now in Redding,” said Jonathan Cox, battalion chief with Cal Fire. “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.”
Consider the situation in Greece, where surprised residents were forced to flee to the Aegean Sea with only a twenty minute window for escape, some finding out only too late, that a cliff blocked their way. Hundreds were rescued from the beaches Dunkirk style, and 19 lucky survivors were plucked from the sea. Having happened just days ago, it’s hard not to draw comparisons. What if a flaming front had borne down on those miles of citizens fleeing Redding last night. It could have easily been another Black Saturday. For those who quarrel with the idea of climate change, I will say this – We are killing firefighters and now civilians and a much faster clip than ever before. I have spent days in Whiskeytown NRA working with inmate crews to construct fuelbreaks across that landscape, a fuelbreak network that was maintained and expanded after I left. But no kind of fuelbreak can stand in the way of a fire burning like the Carr Fire over the past 48 hours. And no amount of Fire Safe Council phone trees being developed or reverse-911 notification can compensate for lack of community and home fire preparedness, which needs to happen long before the first whiff of smoke in the air.
Before the turn of the century and shortly thereafter, we did have mass casualties as in the the Big Blowup of 1910 and Peshtigo before that. But there was a long lull, during the era of industrialized fire suppression. Also, an individual’s means of escape, if in an automobile, has been much enhanced since that time. But now we find urban and suburban areas choked with too many people and not enough roadway to effect a hasty retreat. Despite the edge of piloting a speedy automobile, the fatalities are mounting, now in odd places that never experienced deadly fires in recent memory like Oklahoma and North Carolina. For God’s sake, they’re dropping bombs on fires in Sweden in a vain attempt to extinguish them, and Greenland now burns regularly.
And to those opportunistic liars representing the timber industry, there is no evidence that logging reduces wildfire risk, short of removing and paving with asphalt the entire forest. Indeed, the great Peshtigo Fire was exacerbated by logging slash left throughout the great forests of the Great Lakes region, leveled for profit. The same is true today – untreated slash is a wildfire menace, and unthinned plantations burn like brush. Even the well-manicured plantations of Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) were vaporized during the Rim Fire. Many families of loggers followed the timber from Appalachia to the Midwest, and finally to the West Coast, but their waxing poetically on the lack of fire back in their day is simply a reflection of the temporary stay humankind put on fires, during the period of industrialization coupled with a cool, moist climatic period that may not return for a long, long time. My understanding is that there is a group of ex-U.S. Forest Service employees advocating a return to the 10am policy of suppressing all fires, everywhere, all the time. This is simply madness, born of some wistful memory of times gone by. Today we have different forests, drought-stressed, with vast areas of standing snags from bug-kill and legacy fires, and a warming, drying climate. In that period fuels have been continuing to accumulate for lack of adequate funding and lack of will to burn.
Obviously, some mechanical thinning of small trees can be helpful, especially in densely-stocked young plantations. But, while the timber industry wants to log it all, some environmentalists want to leave it all alone. Excessive litigation drives perfectly good young idealistic young specialists away from the agency, because of the years of planning required to see a simple project to fruition. Some groups have litigated simple, innocuous projects to thin old plantations that would have been good entry treatments to prepare for burning, on the other hand, the Forest Service has often generated unwanted controversy and opposition by including timber sales of big, old fire-resistant trees to sweeten the deal as the first stage of proposed fuels reduction projects. On the back-end, contractors aren’t held accountable for slash disposal, or the needed amount of BD/KV money isn’t collected, and so-called fuels reduction treatments wind up increasing the fuel hazards and fire risks.
Extolling the virtues of high-severity fire (from which there are, indeed, many ecological benefits) cannot be overgeneralized to include all high-severity fires everywhere without considering other competing social or ecological values that may be adversely impacted by severe fire. This risks alienating both public and firefighter constituents, as no person owning a home adjacent to forested wildlands is going to be OK with crown fires burning up their backyard, and firefighters are putting their lives on the line to moderate fire effects to save green trees. There is a real threat of a public backlash, led by opportunistic politicians eager to amp up the war on wildfire, to demand full suppression all the time–no matter the expense of blood or treasure.
Neither group grasps the looming reality – neither wholesale logging, nor a hands off approach that allows wildfire to burn large areas with uncharacteristic high severity–none of it is a real solution that conforms to ecological or social reality. The fires of global warming are here, and some childish notion that a larger aircraft or more fire engines is going to have a meaningful change in outcomes is naive. We have known for decades that unburned forests in dry climates accumulated large amounts of fuel, but we lacked the political will to do the burning. We have known for decades that unchecked burning of fossil fuels would alter the climate. In both cases we chose to do little or nothing. It’s time to pay the piper.