Disaster Strikes

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Surviving the Carr fire in California -- a firsthand account.

Submitted: October 06, 2018

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Submitted: October 06, 2018



Disaster Strikes:  A Firsthand Account of the Carr Fire

By M. C. Pehrson

The morning of July 26, 2018, began like any other hot summer morning in Redding, California. It was Thursday – grocery shopping day – and once again we went over-budget on our food. Among other things, I bought ingredients for the nachos I planned to make on the following evening. There was a delicious, red-ripe watermelon in the fridge – the best of the season. Outside, all my plants had been watered. This year, the tomatoes were doing great. My other star performer was a sickly gardenia that I had moved into a big pot. Now it was flourishing, covered with fragrant white blossoms.

No one in our area thought much about a fire that had been burning to the west. After all, the Sacramento River had always formed a protective barrier, and so much of the land had been cleared to build Lake Keswick Estates, a subdivision that abutted our back fence.

Early that day, I had received a troubling Facebook message from my sister-in-law, Sharon. Her son’s brother-in-law, a firefighter, had warned him that the fire might jump the river that night and threaten his home. Joseph lived only a quarter of a mile from us. I had not heard any other warning; though it made me uneasy, such a thing hardly seemed possible.

We ate dinner at our usual time. About an hour later, I went out back and looked toward the west. The smoke seemed far more menacing – an entire wall of it, with a cumulous cloud towering above one section. I noticed that the fire had also spread farther southward, toward the Placer area where my daughter Mary had recently moved. It was chilling.

Hurrying inside, I tried to contact Mary, without success. I told my husband Charlie that I was getting scared, and asked him to come outside with me and take a look. Now, suddenly, some tall flames were occasionally visible. Over our back fence in the subdivision, people were standing around, gaping at the sight. Ash fell steadily from the sky.

As Charlie stood mesmerized, I took a moment to wet down our two piles of split oak firewood. Then I hurried back into the house and gathered a few clothes, toiletry items, and cash. I was just finishing up when the answering machine blared an evacuation order.

Things were happening too fast. Rushing back outside, I found my husband in the front yard and told him we had to go. He seemed to move in slow motion, but once in the house, I grabbed two ziplock bags and urged him to pack his diabetic medication.

Someone banged on the front door. I opened up, and there stood a policeman. “You have to get out,” he ordered. “Now!”

I felt no sense of panic, just urgency. I had already put our bags of clothing and toiletries near the front door, along with my purse. Now to get us out. I made sure Charlie had his wallet and keys. Halfway to the garage, he noticed that he was only wearing slippers and wanted to go back. Towering flames were now visible just south of us. I grabbed his hand and told him that unless we evacuated RIGHT NOW, we were going to die. (We later learned that two adults and two children had indeed died nearby.)

The side door to the garage was locked, but Charlie had a key in his key case. He had trouble getting the door open, but then we were inside. The garage door opener wouldn’t work – apparently the power had just gone out. Charlie pulled the release cord and muscled the big door open. I got into the Honda and he got into his Santa Fe. Our truck would have to stay behind. I backed out first and waited a moment to make sure that Charlie’s SUV would start. I watched as he backed from the garage and stopped, got out, and went to close the garage door behind him. Yet another delay!

At that point I headed down the gravel driveway. A policeman met me by our mailbox at the road. “Is anyone else up there?” he shouted. I told him that my husband would be right behind me. But after I joined the flow of traffic on Quartz Hill Road, I began to worry. What if Charlie had fallen down on the gravel? He was unsteady on his feet and couldn’t get up by himself. And, of course, there was a nagging worry about Mary. How were things in her area? Was she and her family alright?

Somewhere in the midst of all this, Charlie and I must have agreed on a destination. I honestly don’t remember such a discussion, but I headed for his sister Wanda’s house on increasingly congested roads, made worse by detours. By then it was getting dark, but in the midst of a traffic shuffle onto Oasis Road, I glimpsed Charlie in his white Santa Fe. He was alright! About fifteen minutes later I was creeping down “Miracle Mile” into town, with a panoramic view of flames engulfing the west. Engulfing my home.

I was the first to arrive at Wanda’s, but she wasn’t there, so I sat on her porch steps in the evening heat, waiting. At last Charlie showed up. An elderly couple stood on the sidewalk, discussing the fire. When I told them that we had been evacuated, they asked if there was anything they could do. I said I was thirsty, so they gave me a tall, very welcome glass of ice water.

I found Wanda’s phone number in my purse and used my emergency cell phone to call her. She had driven out to see the fire and got stuck in the unexpected traffic, but eventually she arrived and let us in. Sometime later, perhaps an hour or two, Mary showed up with her baby Ruby and a pair of cats. Her older children, Emily and Jesse, were safe with their father (who had custody on Thursdays), in another section of Redding. I was right about the fire reaching her area; she had also been evacuated and had spent three hours in traffic until she eventually found her way to Wanda’s house. A nephew, Ryan, was also sent from his home, and showed up.

Around 2:00 a.m., we tried to get a little sleep. When morning came, a reporter on television was shown driving through a devastated neighborhood, and in a cul-de-sac I thought I glimpsed the awning posts of my mobile home beyond a demolished fence. It was all so quick, and I couldn’t be sure. Later that week, we heard about the rare fire tornado that had swept through the Quartz Hill area. Our nephew Joseph’s house was destroyed, and eventually we learned that our home of forty-one years and all our possessions were gone. Those few crooked awning posts stood watch over a pile of ashes and twisted steel. And the two piles of firewood that I wet down? One was totally consumed by the blaze, while the pile right beside it was untouched. Three of our nearest neighbors had lost their homes, but three others were untouched. Perhaps because of the circular, tornadic wind, it had been a capricious fire.

The first time I visited our property, I was surprised – and heartened – to find signs of life rising from the ashes. During the fire, our plastic water main had melted, loosing countless gallons into an adjacent field. Now green grass was sprouting from the scorched, bone-dry land, symbolic of my post-fire experiences.

At first, I broke down and wept at some point every day. Not so much over the many lost possessions (we had been the depository of photos and keepsakes going back several generations), but over the loss of my own familiar home with its lifetime of memories, where the yearly growth of my daughters had been marked on the pantry door, where I could step outside and care for my beloved plants, each of which had a story of its own. The locust trees and lilacs from my parents’ place in Hoopa; the pine tree from Aunt Margaret; the honeysuckle, rose bush, and fig tree from my friend Doylene; the calla lilies I dug from my uncle’s yard in Van Nuys, where I grew up. All those dear people had gone from this world, and now their growing, living reminders were gone, too.

But like the sprouting grass, there were glimpses of beauty rising out of the ashes. Generous relatives who opened their homes to us, friends and family – both near and far – who gave us money and other gifts. Compassionate, helpful insurance agents seeing us through the main disaster and a lesser one when our parked Santa Fe was struck by a young driver and totaled. The water district erasing our final bill, stores offering fire discounts, strangers offering condolences.  A kindhearted property manager putting us to the head of the line for a ground floor apartment in our own, familiar part of town. Every day there has been evidence that God can, indeed, bring good out of the worst of tragedies. And it could have been much worse for us. We had all escaped the flames, and our daughter’s house is intact. The oak trees on the east side of our property are unscathed. Life goes on…

To be honest, there are some things I don’t miss. The piles of clutter left in the house and garage by my “packrat” husband. The antiquated phones he insisted on using, with broken antennas that caught in my hair. (Do I hear my daughters chuckling?) The invasive blackberry vines constantly creeping from under our back deck. Battling skunks – but that is a whole other story.

Charlie is already gathering fresh clutter, and I will not be surprised if the blackberries and skunks eventually return to plague me. But one thing is absolutely certain – those miserable old phones are never, ever coming back. Halleluiah!



© Copyright 2019 M. C. Pehrson. All rights reserved.

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