Ed Bledsoe cradled the stone in his calloused right palm, using his thumb to scrape away a layer of dust and ash. Finding nothing but a gray, smooth surface, he hunched over and tossed it back into the dirt.
The Carr fire had destroyed his home and killed his wife and two great-grandchildren. Bledsoe was looking for something to hang on to, even if it was just the rainbow-painted rock 4-year-old Emily had decorated.
“The paint would’ve survived” the searing heat, he said.
The fire took pretty much everything else. His wife, Melody. The great-grandchildren they were raising: James, 5, and Emily. A firefighter who had tried to warn residents of the coming danger. Another resident who could not get out in time. More than a thousand homes across Shasta County.
There are so many things about the day of the fire that Bledsoe, 76, keeps repeating in his mind. For one thing, no one thought it would move so far so fast.
For days, Bledsoe, his wife and neighbors had watched the smoke plumes inch closer as the Carr fire moved through Whiskeytown Lake and Keswick, west of the Sacramento River. On July 26, the flames jumped that barrier and headed toward Redding.
About 5:30 that afternoon, Bledsoe’s son decided to rake a defensive line around his property by dragging fencing and old tires behind the back of a truck.
Firefighters came by and told him to stop — the fencing could hit a rock, kick up a spark and ignite another blaze. He returned to his home next door to Bledsoe’s, who with the kids continued to watch the smoke miles away.
“We figured, ‘Hell, it ain’t gonna cross that … air tankers are hitting it,” Bledsoe said.
About 7 p.m., Bledsoe’s doctor called and asked him to help with some handyman work. So he drove down two-lane Quartz Hill Road into town. He’d be just a few minutes away.
That’s when the Carr fire spawned at least one massive tornado, with a vertical rope of fire swirling in the middle of it, uprooting trees, tossing cars and igniting everything in its orbit.
Bledsoe’s phone rang about 7:15 p.m. His wife said smoke had smothered the land and he had better get home. She’d already called 911 and officers said they were on the way, Bledsoe said.
“I figured the Fire Department would come through here and knock on every door, or somebody at least come on the PA system hollering: ‘Everybody get out, the fire’s coming!’ They didn’t say nothing,” Bledsoe said.
He headed home but was met by a five-lane-wide wall of cars fleeing in the opposite direction. He got out and hiked through the trees toward his land, careful to avoid being spotted by authorities.
“I just [went] running this way and the fire just wouldn’t let me…” he said, losing himself in the memory.
During the hellish trek, he talked to his wife on the phone.
“She said: ‘We love you, we love you, we love you.’ I said: ‘I love you too, I’ll be there, I’m coming, I’m coming, I’ll be there. Just hang on, I’ll be there,’” Bledsoe said.
Melody, 70, handed the phone to James, who at 5 was already becoming the man of the house, he said.
“I just talked to him until I heard the angels come right out of him. I tried running through the fire. I tried to get in. I would’ve laid on top of them and died [rather] than have them go without me,” Bledsoe said as his eyes welled with tears.
He walked until he found firefighters and California Highway Patrol officers. They drove him back down the hill and told him his family had been rescued. Bledsoe was skeptical as he surveyed the level of destruction but held out hope. Maybe police did show up and did rescue them, he thought.
“But I know they didn’t because I was talking to them until they died,” he said. “But I took it as if they did rescue them because I wanted to get some of the grief out of me. I wanted to hear it.”
Bledsoe filed a missing persons report and checked the evacuation centers. Search teams initially didn’t find his wife or the two children at the home, but Bledsoe begged them to go back and take another look. Their remains were found along with those of two of the family’s dogs. His wife and the kids had apparently tried to shield themselves from the flames under a wet blanket, Bledsoe said.
In the weeks since that grim discovery, Bledsoe has dedicated his time to preserving his family’s memory.
He pointed to a scorched wheelbarrow in the rear of his yard where melted rubber had oozed off the wheels. James used that for moving firewood, he said. He was going to restore it.
The rock, if he ever found it, would be a keepsake from Emily. Both of the children deeply loved their great-grandmother, he said.
“I took the kids to school every day and I’d go get ’em and bring ’em home,” he recalled. “Boy, when they get home they go running right to that woman … kissing all over her. They just couldn’t stay away from her.”
He’s also spent a lot of time thinking about his wife.
When the couple was just dating, a child down the street needed surgery but couldn’t afford it because the family was in debt.
“My wife had $24,000 in the bank; kid needed $21,000. She wrote him a check for $24,000, give it to him, kid had surgery and he’s alive today,” Bledsoe said.
Because his wife had been born into wealth, Bledsoe struggled to grasp why she married him — a rugged guy with a country twang who’d prefer to spend his time getting dirty working on cars than being refined.
“I never could figure out what the hell she see in me. She said: ‘I’ve had all the money in the world.… But I never did have no love.… That’s what I have now,’” he said. “That woman was the absolute best. I’ll never try to replace her. When you’ve had the best, you don’t need the rest, you know?”
Bledsoe said some of his family’s ashes would be kept in an urn; the rest would be placed into the body of a chainsaw that will then be adorned with their pictures and names.
He’s also found ways to temporarily cope with the loss.