Carr Fire: ‘Nothing Feels Normal’

How do we even begin to process what’s happening to our community right now?  Where do you put all these emotions, fears, dark thoughts, and feelings of profound gratitude?  How do we grasp the reach of our lives, when friends from across the world reach out and ask how they can help, and what do we need?

Last Thursday feels like a lifetime ago.  I started my day at the gym, worrying about the usual mundane things, and ended the day sleeping on my mom’s couch, surrounded by family and pets who had to flee a wildfire, wondering if any of us would still have a home the next morning.

Nothing makes any sense.

My brother lives west of Redding, very close to Grant School on Swasey Drive.  When he got word on Wednesday the fire in French Gulch was starting to grow some legs, he wisely packed up the important items, wrangled the dogs and cats into the car and sent his wife and daughter to our mom’s house on the west side of town.  My sister lives in Country Heights, and she and her husband and son also wrangled their dog and cats into the car and went to our mom’s, just in case.

At that point I started watching things out the window of my own house with a more critical eye and I suddenly noticed the smoke was rolling through the trees, which set off alarm bells in the monkey part of my brain.

I stepped outside to get a better look and noticed neighbors throwing suitcases and children and boxes into their cars, and it was the constant sound of slamming doors that made me feel that panic we like to think we’re immune from. I started grabbing what seemed important, and once the car was packed I stood in my living room and looked at my safe world, torn between wanting to save it all and needing to bolt out the door.  I’d like to say I packed carefully and calmly but the truth is I’ve got apple boxes filled with socks, T-shirts, my laptop, my passport, my checkbook and a bag filled with stuff I yanked out of the medicine cabinet.

Left behind was everything else in my life, including a box filled with all my artwork that all I had to do was grab and shove into the car.  I didn’t.

Placer Street was bumper to bumper with cars in both directions; everyone having the same wild-eyed look I’m sure I shared.  I made it down Buenaventura Avenue to my mom’s house after the longest, slowest drive of my life.  Later, I drove to the ridge nearby overlooking the entire north and western horizon, only to see miles and miles of smoke and ash.

Carr Fire photo from west Redding by Matt Grigsby.

Soon, I could also see a giant wall of flames 100-feet high and hear the sounds of propane tanks exploding over and over and over.  I hope I never hear a sound like that again.  Each one was another home lost.  The video I took of that sight was terrifying and I can hear the emotion in my voice as I cried and hoped everyone had escaped.

On Friday my brother and I decided to see if we could get to his house, past the police barricades.  I have a press pass for A News Cafe, and I showed it to the Highway Patrol officer manning the barricade.

He said, “Press?  Sure, go through.  But you’re on your own.”

Those words are chilling to hear in any circumstance, but I suddenly felt the weight of what was  happening.  As we drove west down Placer, everything looked normal and not normal.  We saw almost no one, with clouds of ash and smoke.  When we finally reached my brother’s street we drove up the hill and saw the glorious sight of his house still standing.  I’m not able to convey those emotions, but I imagine you know how that would feel.  When we got out of the car we noticed everything past his house was black.  Everything.  The fire had burned right up to his fence, and we later learned that Cal Fire had gone out at 4 a.m.,  cut the barbed wire fence and stopped the advance of the flames, saving the entire street.

Where are the words to describe how THAT feels?

We could see a rather large flare up of flames not far away, and could hear the popping and crackling of the fire, so we didn’t linger.  We headed back to town and decided to check on my brother’s mother-in-law’s house in Sunset Terrace.  Along the way we checked on a couple of friend’s houses (both intact) and that’s when we started to really see some damage.  Entire sections of Mary Lake were gone, with piles of rubble and burning gas lines.  One house was still standing, but you could see through the open garage that the back half of the house was totally burned.  The checkerboard nature of lost and not lost was staggering.  How must it feel to see your house still standing while your next door neighbors lost everything?  Or vice versa?  I hope I never know.

When we got to Sunset Terrace, things looked oddly normal but totally deserted.  My brother’s mother-in-law’s house was untouched, but as we turned around and looked up the street, we could suddenly see smoking rubble not two blocks away.  At the top of the rise I was able to see across the river where everything was burned.  Everything.  We made our way back to my mom’s house with equal measures of relief and heartache.

Friday afternoon we heard that friends who live off Branstetter Lane got an evacuation order too, so they packed up the dog and both cats and joined us at my mom’s house.  Things were surprisingly peaceful for a house with nine adults, two dogs and five cats, but it was as chaotic as you’d imagine.  I eventually brought my friends back to my house where there was a little more room, and we tried to pretend things were normal for a while with some pizza and beer.

Saturday afternoon the smoke picked up very quickly, so we bugged out yet again.  My friends headed to another friend’s house and I went back to my mom’s.  When I turned onto her street I was met by National Guard soldiers who said the area was evacuating, and to get my family and get out.  Naturally, no one else had heard this order and we were confused as to what to do.  There was nothing online, nothing on the news, no official word of any kind.  We decided to wait things out and see, and within a couple of hours the smoke lessened and I felt safe enough to go back to my house.

I still have no idea if my area is under official evacuation orders.

Today brings no comfort as I no longer feel I can let down my guard.  At least I’ve got shoes right by the door and not the garden flip flops I wore for two days when I lost my shit trying to get out quickly.  I think I’m relatively safe for now, but I’m keeping an eye on the area around me, hoping the drifting smoke is from far away and not two streets over.

I can only imagine the sense of frustration Cal Fire, the Redding Police, the Redding Fire Department, the Sheriff’s office, the CHP and the National Guard must feel when an entire COUNTY is under a wildfire threat.  However, they will forever have my respect and admiration for the impossible task of trying to predict the unpredictable, even while they had losses of their own.

In all these terrifying days, I cannot express how emotional I am feel over the amount of love and support I have received from around the world.  I’ve gotten calls and texts from Japan, Scotland, France, Australia, Brazil, Iowa, Florida, New York, Virginia, Oregon, Washington …everywhere.  Offers of gift cards, homes, friends’ homes, food, a place to sit and calmly figure out what to do next, anything I need.  Heaps and heaps of love that gave me more strength than I can convey.

I cry just typing those words.

I am also heartbroken at how many people I know who have lost literally everything.  I am overwhelmed at what was lost and what wasn’t.  People here at A News Cafe were also impacted and lost their homes, and our little online community feels that pain.

This still isn’t over, and each hour brings either new threats or new hope.  Nothing feels normal right now.  The part of me that wishes I had taken more photos and video to show people what’s happening is at odds with the part of me that feels like a ghoul for recording the worst suffering imaginable.  And yet, this is now part of our history.  People will rebuild and find joy again, and I’d like to think the lessons we’ve learned won’t be lost.

And, on a personal note, I hope every single possum on the west side of town has been driven away forever.

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Matt Grigsby
Matt Grigsby was born and raised in Redding but has often felt he should have been born in Italy. By day he's a computer analyst toiling for the public good and by night he searches airline websites for great travel deals. His interests include books, movies, prowling thrift shops for treasure and tricking his friends into cooking for him. One day he hopes to complete his quest in finding the best gelato shop in Italy.
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39 Responses

  1. Deb Deb says:

    Oh, Matt… What heartbreaking, beautiful writing. I have no words. Only love.

    Your last line gives me hope: your sense of humor will help to see you through.

    Grateful you and your family are safe… heartbroken for those who aren’t… astounded and grateful for those who put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others… Thank you for sharing this part of your story.

    • Avatar Matthew Grigsby says:

      I’ve made a number of inappropriate jokes lately just to help get through this.

      My family and I are very lucky to have each other together right now and to know our homes are safe. Unfortunately, every time you step outside you are reminded of the dragon breathing down our necks.

  2. Avatar Marcie says:

    I’m crying as I am reading your words. We just moved from Redding just two short months ago and our entire old neighborhood was evacuated on Thursday. My heart is broken for Redding and my friends that have lost their homes.

    • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

      It is indeed heartbreaking, and it sounds like your departure was very fortunate timing.

  3. Avatar Cathy Allen says:

    Amazing writing, thank you Matt.

  4. Avatar Chris A Grabe says:

    Well written I have you in my thoughts and prayers. Stay safe

  5. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    Well written, Matt.

    I’ve never lived in a war zone, but I imagine it would feel something like the last few days have felt.

    • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

      I’ve been thinking the same thing. The weird light from the fires, the falling ash that never stops. It’s horrible in every way.

  6. Avatar Kerry Fasking says:

    A brilliant honest factual emotional use of your press creds! Thank you for putting to words what so many of us are feeling!

    • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

      Thank you Kerry! The pain is on the faces of everyone in our community, and we are all hurting.

  7. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    Out of curiosity, I asked the fire-refugee friend who’s staying with us how the post-fire restoration of Santa Rosa is coming along one year later—her daughter’s family lives there. Her response: Sloooooooowly. There are people who feel lucky that they have slots in RV parks while they wait for their houses to be rebuilt, because the housing shortage is still extreme. The good news for Redding (knock on wood) is that we’re not going to come anywhere close to losing 2,900 homes, as occurred in Santa Rosa. But I expect there will be a substantial housing crunch nonetheless.

    • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

      I commented earlier but it seems to have vanished.
      I worry about a slow pace of rebuilding but at this point I’m just so grateful the loss of life and homes wasn’t far worse.

  8. Oh, dearest Matt. Thank you for pulling the emotional scab from your wound to share your experience. I felt choked up to read this account, but it was your video, when you started to cry and wonder if people had escaped, that made me – to borrow your vernacular – lose my shit. I bawled like a baby.

    • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

      Thank you Doni. Even when I rewatch the video I choke up, reliving those moments of total despair. I wish I could tell myself that all those people got out.

      • That’s my wish, too. But I dread what will be found when the smoke clears. I have heard stories of people who ran for their lives, who knew for a fact there were people who remained who didn’t run. I fear the death count will climb.

  9. Avatar bruce vojtecky says:

    My niece and family including my wife’s brother have all been evacuated from Lewiston and are staying at a relative’s house in Weaverville. My sister-in-law lives in Douglas City and they are under a voluntary evacuation. My niece posted a video taken by someone on Buckhorn Summit last night and it looks like Dante’s Hell in all directions. It seems the Carr Fire is far from over.
    I don’t know what to say other than this is terrible and Redding is going to need help from outside to recover.

    • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

      I’m so sorry the danger has spread so far west and I’m glad your family is out of harm’s way. This fire is like nothing I’ve ever seen.

  10. Dante’s Hell is about right. I hope your family will be safe and sound and can return to find homes intact.

    • Avatar bruce vojtecky says:

      Communication is spotty at best. While Weaverville area is having off/on power problems because of the fire, here in Phoenix we are having off/on power issues because of the Monsoon. Today was garbage day and the cans, thank goodness they are plastic, are flying everywhere.

  11. Avatar DeniseO says:

    That’s what my family does, I appropriate jokes and laughter.

    This is the first disaster where I read more than once, I wish I was there or I couldn’t leave, whichever applies.

    Redding is a crazy close community.

    Beautiful piece, Matt.

    • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

      Thank you Denise. I suppose with all it’s flaws and troubles, Redding is still a beautiful place filled with incredible people and in a terrible event like this we tend to pull together.

      That’s worth remembering.

  12. Avatar Denise says:

    Oh Matt.
    This is such a well written account of what you and your family and friends are surviving.
    Thank you for reporting your pain in the wake of so much uncertainty and pain.
    My thoughts are with you and your family!
    You will make it through this and survive!
    And, keep the humor…essential trauma survival skill.???

    • Avatar Matthew Grigsby says:

      My sense of humor has served me well over the years, although it’s hard to laugh much right now. Thank you for you kind words!

  13. Avatar Susan Tavalero says:

    Rebuilding is a marathon, NOT a sprint.

    • Avatar Matthew Grigsby says:

      I fully expect to see months of empty lots and bare ground, but we will come back, I have no doubt.

  14. Avatar Jacqueline Breedlove says:

    Very nice Matt!

  15. Avatar Irene Hays says:

    Thank you for your emotional words. Having lived through the weeks of the Sonoma County fire less than a year ago, we all know the panic and terror of what you are going through. Be good to each other.
    Survive. My heart is in my throat for all of you each day. We are pulling for you and for the fires to end.

    • Avatar Matthew Grigsby says:

      Thank you Irene. I completely understand the feeling of watching a horror from afar, like what you went through in Sonoma County. However, it was a detached horror that I had no personal context for. I certainly do now, and that perspective makes me see so many things differently.

  16. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    I read your column right after it was written and posted a comment, congratulating you on such a great piece. Just as I hit Submit, the site went down again. Not having the site available for columns like yours and Doni’s and RV’s make it even more imperative to keeping it alive.

  17. Avatar Cathy says:

    Thank you so much for bravely putting into words how many of us felt & still feel.

    • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

      Thank you Cathy. It’s true that I no longer feel the panic, but the heartache and disbelief will probably linger for some time.

  18. AJ AJ says:

    I told my daughter that I felt so guilty for feeling so happy to return to my home after evacuation, since several of my very close friends lost EVERYTHING in the Old Shasta area. She said, “Survivor’s guilt, Mom. Deal with it as such.” A very irreverent sense of humor helps . . . . some.

    • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

      I too felt guilty to be able to return home more quickly than my family and friends, while Facebook was filled with so much loss. A sense of humor will help, some, as you say. But this pain will probably leave a mark.

  19. Avatar Candace Constans-Corbin says:

    Your words are powerful, thank you. Funny thing about emotional roller coasters – I live in Country Heights and lucky me, my home is ok! Today, August 5, I feel more panicky now than before. Yesterday when I saw the headline flash across my phone saying the fire had jumped a Ridge in French Gulch and Igo, I packed up my entire car with everything I had just unpacked. It stays that way today, ready to throw the animals into and go. Today I feel on edge and well, I guess, sort of shell shocked. My guess is I’ll feel that way for a while. Tonight, Anchor Steam is my friend, but only one, just in case I have to drive.

    • Avatar Matthew Grigsby says:

      I wonder how long we’ll be jumpy like that. I keep reconsidering unpacking my car. Once the rains come we can breathe a little easier, quite literally, although the next phase of a wild fire starts with the mudslides. This fire changes everything.