A destructive wildfire in Northern California nearly doubled in size by Friday afternoon, killing at least two people — including a city firefighter — and burning dozens of homes in Redding as residents ran for their lives.
The Carr fire, driven east by 30-mph winds, hopscotched into subdivisions, destroying at least 65 homes and damaging 55 others near the Sacramento River. Those numbers are expected to rise.
It was a chaotic scene across Redding, a city of 90,000 people about 100 miles from the Oregon border, as towering flames whipped along the horizon and through canyons, and evacuation orders expanded by the hour.
By Friday afternoon, more than 38,000 people in Shasta County were displaced, said Sheriff Tom Bosenko.
As temperatures climbed into the triple digits, firefighters struggled to make progress against the blaze, which grew to 44,500 acres and was only 3% contained, Cal Fire said. Temperatures by early afternoon hit 101 degrees, with a forecast high of 109 degrees.
“This fire was whipped up into a whirlwind of activity,” Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said Friday. The flames uprooted trees, moved cars and dislocated parts of roads, he said.
Northern California will see high heat and low humidity over the next week to 10 days, he said, which will increase the likelihood of new fires starting and firefighters wearing out.
The fire killed at least two people, including Jeremy Stoke, a firefighter with Redding’s fire department, and a private bulldozer operator who authorities did not name.
Tensions and temperatures ran high Friday afternoon in a small neighborhood southwest of downtown Redding. Residents grabbed their children, pets and possessions and loaded up their cars, accompanied by the buzz of helicopters and the crackle of a police loudspeaker.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Steve Rice, who has lived in the neighborhood for 55 years.
Before he left, Rice turned on garden hoses to water down his RV camper, and left an American flag flying next to his front door as a signal to the firefighters he hoped would come.
The Carr fire started Monday, but didn’t begin wreaking havoc until Wednesday night, when winds pushed the flames three miles east in four hours. A second night of dry, powerful winds pushed flames over the Sacramento River into western Redding and north toward the city of Shasta Lake.
The fire was 6% contained Thursday night. By Friday morning, the burn area had nearly doubled and the containment had shrunk to 3%.
Thursday night, the blaze burned through a thickly wooded canyon and blew into several newer subdivisions north and west of the Sacramento River in Redding. The fire shot up like a blowtorch out of the canyons, burning in an uneven pattern that destroyed some homes and left others untouched, residents said.
“It sounded like a jet engine in your ear,” said Ron Mhoon, 44, who fled with his wife and four sons after the police knocked on their door. “You couldn’t believe how loud it was.”
Despite the mandatory evacuation order, Mhoon came back to the neighborhood Friday to check on his home, which he purchased five months ago. He called his son on FaceTime and showed him what was left: a gas main, still burning, and the shower stall from the master bedroom.
Rick Plummer, director of marketing for Dignity Health’s Mercy Medical Center in Redding, said he left the Carr fire command post about 11 p.m. Thursday and arrived home to find a wall of flames a half-mile away and closing in.
Plummer packed his Jeep with “things I can’t replace,” and fled. He spent the night on an air mattress in his office.
“You hear about it and people that have gone through it,” Plummer said, his voice cracking with emotion. “But until you’ve gone through it yourself, I don’t think you can 100% appreciate walking through your home and deciding what to take and what not to take.”
Plummer said he watched doctors, nurses and hospital administrators work through the night as they learned their own homes had burned.
Among those caught in the path of the flames were three Marin County firefighters assigned to rescue residents and protect homes, said Marin County fire Chief Jason Weber.
The three men had been working since 1 a.m. Thursday. About 8 p.m. that night, a gust of wind shoved flames toward the Pinyon Pines neighborhood. The firefighters took refuge from the flames in their engine, Weber said.
The firefighters — a 20-year veteran and company officer and two seasonal firefighters — suffered burns to their hands, face, ears and noses, Weber said. The youngest of the group, who is 26, was taken to UC Davis Medical Center’s burn center Friday morning for additional treatment.
“The fire is making significant runs,” he said. “This is year after year of historical weather and fuel conditions and all of California is ripe for fire behavior. All the fire agencies are tired throughout the state.”
Mercy Medical Center spent Thursday and Friday preparing to evacuate, officials said. Five babies in the neonatal intensive care unit were taken to hospitals in Davis and Sacramento as a precaution, and strike teams of ambulances are on standby.
The hospital was still open and treating patients Friday. Several civilians and firefighters were treated for burns there Thursday night, Plummer said.
A Redding television station, KRCR, cut off its live coverage so anchors and other employees could evacuate the studio. Shasta Dam was closed to the public Friday as a precaution.
Residents also reported sporadic power outages, including at the Redding Record Searchlight newspaper, as well as jammed roads as people streamed out of the fire zone.
“It’s crazy. It’s out of control,” California Highway Patrol Sgt. Tim Hinkson said in a Facebook video as he evacuated residents Thursday.
The devastation in Redding extends a grim period of fires in California. Last fall, Northern California’s wine country was hit by the most destructive fires on record, destroying thousands of homes and killing dozens of residents. In December, the Thomas fire tore through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, becoming the largest single fire in state history.
As fire activity increased Friday, authorities expanded evacuation orders to include the following areas:
The Shasta Dam Visitor Center
All of Shasta Dam Boulevard
All of the city of Shasta Lake and Summit City
Pine Grove Avenue north on Lake Boulevard to Shasta Dam, incorporating Summit City, North Belt Line and Flannigan Road
Intersection of Placer Road and Buenaventura Boulevard, west to Thompson Lane
Buenaventura Boulevard from Placer Road to Westside Road
Westside Road to Keyon Drive, incorporating County Heights and the West Redding neighborhood
Buenaventura Boulevard to State Route 299 to Placer Road
Placer Road from Buenaventura Boulevard to Placer Road
Cloverdale Road from Placer Road to Clear Creek Road
Clear Creek Road west from Cloverdale Road to Honey Bee Road
North of Sacramento River to Keswick Dam Road, west of Market Street and Lake Boulevard to Keswick Dam
North at Lake Boulevard and Oasis Road to Pine Grove Avenue and Walker Mine Road, west of Cascade Road and Interstate 5
South along Swasey Drive from State Route 299 to Placer Road
West along Placer Road from Swasey to Prospect Drive
North from Prospect Drive to encompass Middle Park Ranch Land area
West of Overhill Drive and north of State Route 299
North of State Route 299 and west of Spinmaker Road to the end of Harlan Drive
Keswick Dam east to Counter Lane and north to Quartz Hill Road
An evacuation center at Shasta High School was closed and a new one was opened at Shasta College at 11555 Old Oregon Trail. Additional centers were opened at Weaverville Elementary School at 32010 State Route 3 in Weaverville, and Cross Point Community Church at 2960 Hartnell Ave. in Redding.
Rolling Hills Casino, south of Redding in Corning, said on Facebook that it had opened its facilities to people displaced by the fire, as well as their pets.
The weather conditions that have hampered firefighting efforts are going to continue through early next week, the National Weather Service said. Temperatures in Redding are expected to soar to 110 degrees Saturday before a slight drop to 105 degrees by Tuesday, said meteorologist Chris Hintz.
At the same time, dry, gusty winds will continue to sap up any moisture left in the landscape.
“Those are prime fire weather conditions for fires to spread rapidly,” Hintz said.
As of Friday, the Carr fire was the most destructive of several major blazes burning around the state.
In Riverside County, the Cranston fire — easily spotted by the billowy plumes of smoke expanding into the sky — had burned 11,500 acres and was 3% contained Friday morning. At least five homes have been lost in that fire.
Near Yosemite, the Ferguson fire continues to burn in wilderness areas. That blaze has scorched 45,911 acres and was 29% contained Friday.
Times Staff Writers Alene Tchekmedyian and Laura J. Nelson in Los Angeles contributed to this report. Willon and Myers reported from Redding, Serna from Los Angeles.