Carr Fire: ‘Nothing Feels Normal’

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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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