Redding seemed to be holding its collective breath Friday as night fell, with winds appearing relatively calm but a grainy, orange sky looming over the community’s western neighborhoods from the deadly and still expanding Carr fire.
With at least 500 structures lost and more than 48,000 acres burned, Redding residents either decided to pack their belongings and head out of town along Interstate 5, which bisects the city, or nervously wait out the blaze, which is only 5% contained.
“Sometimes, people do not heed the recommendations to leave,” said Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko. “We cannot force them, but it causes problems when people try to come in and rescue them.”
Even so, cars loaded with kids, pets and personal belongings were a common site throughout the early evening.
Bosenko said that as of Friday afternoon, there were no confirmed reports of missing persons, though officials opened a hotline for family members to notify authorities.
“We expect there will be missing persons, and even unreported deaths ... as people find out where their loved ones are,” he said.
By early evening, Redding’s downtown was all but deserted. Law enforcement blockades of streets in the path of the erratic blaze left drivers scrambling for ways around the danger.
Fast-food restaurants away from downtown, however, were the site of massive traffic jams throughout the evening.
In a Friday night update, officials said 500 structures have been destroyed and nearly 5,000 more are threatened.
A number of official shelters remained open and accepting evacuees, while others in the Redding community opened their own doors to do what they could as the second straight night of frayed nerves descended on the city. Suggestions of impromptu welcome mats being laid out were shared throughout the evening on local talk radio. Space for a few livestock here, extra room for a few people there.
News of the magnitude of destroyed houses was just filtering through the impromptu community of evacuees at Shasta College, located northeast of the city center and away from the fire.
Ash occasionally floated down on the hundreds who had fled their homes. The community college’s gym was full of people, cooled with portable generators. Others camped in their cars in the parking lot or on cots laid out on one of the campus’ open lawn areas.
Dena Balding and Claire Lillian were sharing a domed camping tent, and preparing for their second straight night at the evacuation site.
“We might be here for days,” Lillian said. A police officer drove her away from her apartment Thursday night, as she had no other means of travel. She said she appreciated the efforts of first responders, as well as the services at the college being provided by the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross.
“They’re doing the best they can,” she said.
Rory Gentry, who lives only blocks away from Lillian, stopped by to say that he had driven back to the neighborhood near Lake Boulevard, on the northwest side of Redding and near some of the most heavily scorched areas.
He described ashes on the ground that were like newfallen snow under his feet.
“It’s not looking good,” Gentry told the women.
Nearby, James Thayer was trying to settle in for a second night of sleep on an iron park bench. The shelters had only standard beds, and he said he needed a bariatric bed designed for heavier people.
“I’m tired,” Thayer said as he wiped sweat from his brow with a cloth. “I only slept about 15 minutes last night.”
Thayer’s apartment complex remains deep inside the mandatory evacuation zone. And though he wished he wasn’t preparing for a second night on a bench, at least it would be better than the night before.
“This time, they gave me all these blankets,” he said with a slight smile.
At Hope Center, a church on the east side of the city, parishioners opened their building to any who needed help.
“We’re a small congregation, but we’re doing what we can,” said Aaron Schmidt, one of the volunteers staffing the operation.
At Redding’s iconic Sundial Bridge, which crosses the Sacramento River, visitors were turned away as night fell and the smell of smoke settled in.
“We has this all planned,” said Sharon Pentek of Sheboygan, Wisc., whose family was huddled around their car in the parking lot, a paper map and a cellphone in hand to check for hotel rooms to the north of the city. A number of hotels were sold out hours earlier.
Pentek and her husband had come to visit their daughter, who works in Redding. The couple had no idea she had been forced to evacuate.
“We thought this would be the perfect time to come visit,” Pentek said.