Monday morning my iPhone calendar pinged a reminder: Monday, July 30, SAK Whiskytown, 5:00-9:00 p.m.
I burst into tears.
SAK is Special Access Kayak, a Friends of Whiskeytown program where disabled adults are taken on ranger-led kayak tours on Whiskeytown Lake. I’m one of the volunteer guides. This calendar reminder brings sadness and grief that Redding’s beloved jewel Whiskeytown, as we know it, is no more.
Last Monday afternoon, July 23, a Whiskeytown head ranger called me to report that night’s kayak tour as cancelled. A fire had just started on both sides of Highway 299 by Carr Powerhouse, too close to Oak Bottom for us to take guests kayaking. We spoke of maybe seeing one another at the Thursday night kayak tour, when we were scheduled to take out Redding library staff.
Ironically, just a few weeks prior, this ranger and I had a conversation about how much we adored the amazing nature and beauty of Whiskeytown, so much, that I told her that when I die, I wanted my ashes dispersed there. She said, “Shelly, I would totally do that for you.” It was a misty moment, this young ranger, making her promise to me.
Who could imagine that the topic of “ashes” would be relevant to falling through the sky, blanketing like snow for miles, Whiskeytown scorched, more than 89,000+ acres and 517 structures burned. Most tragically of all, the loss of lives.
I know more than 20 people who’ve lost their homes in this fire. I just read this morning on FB, the terrifying account of a friend and her husband, who barely escaped their home, faced by a wall of fire, literally running for their lives, partially dressed, thinking they were going to die.
Reading my friend’s FB post brought me to tears. I’m weepy lately. My late husband, who was a psychologist, would probably say I’m experiencing PTSD that stemmed from the infamous June 2008 fire close to our home on top of Quartz Hill Road. Fire was across the road, with all power out, giant fixed-wing tankers roaring by in front of our windows, dumping red fire retardant below.
We were at home, with Jeff under hospice care, too fragile to move. My twin called the power company, and explained the situation that a terminally ill man needed power for his oxygen on Quartz Hill Road. I’ll never know how they could selectively turn just one house’s power on; but they did. Jeff joked that maybe he wouldn’t die of cancer after all. We survived that fire, but Jeff died two months later.
Since kayaking was cancelled, I worked on some signs I was making for an upcoming wedding. I had the TV on mute, but I could see images of fire tornadoes, heroic firefighters on land and air, burning houses, crying people, and, most heart-breaking, news of lost lives.
I’d been hoping and praying when I first saw on FB the story of the missing great-grandmother and her two young grandchildren. I hoped that they were in a shelter, or a place of safety. We now know the horrifying unfathomable, that the grandmother and children were calling 911, trapped as fire engulfed them.
New trees will grow, houses rebuilt, but life lost is permanent.
When I evacuated Thursday, I bid tearful farewell to my urban chickens, with a prayer for their safety. At that point, there was no official evacuation. We were operating on primal gut level, especially after a friend told us he’d just seen the fire jump the river by my neighborhood. My twin’s daughter-in-law texted me at 8:24 p.m. to say she knew of other people in a nearby neighborhood who’d evacuated.
Ash and particles were raining down, and the hills to the west glowed orange fire. My next-door neighbors, recently moved from Modesto to attend Bethel School, credit friends Walt and Stella who’d evacuated to my house for telling them they should pack up fast, and “get out!” They had no idea of the fire or of danger. The Modesto neighbors drove straight to Sacramento. Walt and Stella took off going north on Market, while I headed south, with plans to stay at a friend’s place.
Meanwhile, I’d been texting and calling my (extremely stubborn) twin, Doni Chamberlain, who lives in west Redding, to tell her to “pack up and get out!” She was annoyed at my insistence, and told me she was waiting for public notice of evacuation. Each time I contacted her, I was increasingly more agitated, finally yelling, “Get the F***k out of there!”
(If you know me, you know that the F word is not part of my pedestrian vocabulary.) She told me that there was no need to yell, she was still loading up her car, and would be leaving shortly.
As I got into my car to leave, reaching for my gate remote, eyeing the wall of fire in the hills, I had a panicked revelation that the gate was electric, and wouldn’t work, leaving me stuck in my driveway, unable to leave. Thoughts of those poor fire victims in Santa Rosa and Napa immediately came to mind. Miracle of miracles, despite the power being out, the gate opened.
I backed out, with my requisite valuable possessions of family albums, documents, passport, computer, jugs of water, phone charger, and a few clothes, including the dress and shoes to wear to the wedding for the signs I was making. I figured I could make new signs if needed. I also brought my Whiskeytown Kayak Crew shirts in case I’d be helping with kayak tours that week.
Funny what runs though one’s mind when faced with choosing what to take in an emergency. I had wet clothes in the washing machine, and spread them out on the kitchen table, so they wouldn’t get moldy. Part of that laundry included three onesies I’d just bought for my 4-month-old niece, which made the evacuation cut, as well as beer, bagged salad, tangerines, my hens’ eggs, a French press and Peet’s French roast coffee. I was heart-sick that my daughter’s beautiful art was too big to fit in my car, as well as the koi painting I’d made years ago as a calming feature for my husband Jeff’s psychology practice. I could always paint another.
I drove south down Loma Street, dark from power outage, toward Quartz Hill Road. I was aghast at the sight of hundreds of cars in gridlock, emergency vehicles with lights flashing, driving on side walks and across the Caldwell Park lawn, cars driving wrong directions, horns honking, people yelling. It was sheer panic and chaos.
I heard myself calling out, “Jesus, help us!” I needed to turn left on Quartz Hill Road, sitting there like an obedient citizen with my left blinker on. I couldn’t help but notice that it was the age group of 20-somethings who would not let me in, even when I made eye contact and gestured. I finally decided that I just had to go for it, and risk one of them t-boning me. Sure enough; screeching brakes and honking horns, but no collision. Once I got in that lane, I needed to get to the right, to turn right onto the Market Street Bridge. It was a series of over-40 age drivers who continually waved me ahead. It seemed that the entire population of west Redding was exiting through Quartz Hill Road. Of course, Benton Drive was the same, all on the same exodus to Market Street.
I inched along in stop-and-go traffic over the bridge. I had KQMS radio on, with the broadcaster describing in real time the very scene I was in, of gridlock and panic. At one point, traffic stopped when I was on the middle of the bridge. I turned off the radio, and looked to the west, seeing the entire dark horizon lit up in orange fire in the hills and the neighborhood below, mere blocks from my house. It looked like my and Jeff’s old house on Quartz Hill was surrounded by fire. I lost it. I felt so alone, and realized again, that Jeff wasn’t here to help, and that he was gone. I felt utterly terrified and helpless. Just then, my phone rang. It was Lee, my landlord, who lives in Bella Vista.
“Hi Shelly, how are you doing?”
Just hearing his calm voice helped me out of my panic. I went into good-tenant mode, and gave him the report of how I left the house, but that the gas was turned off. He asked if I was OK, insisting I contact him if I needed anything.
It took almost an hour to arrive to my friend’s house, normally a 5-minute drive. I sat in the driveway, my hands frozen on the steering wheel. My phone text chirped. It was 9:26 p.m.:
I suppose, were the situation not so dire, that the late timing of this emergency message could be laughable.
Something I learned in this crisis, is how important it is to reach out to others, especially those who may not have much community or family support. I’ve been experiencing the powerful reassurance in hearing from others, even those going through the same crisis. Facebook has been a wonderful resource, from checking in as “Safe”, to hearing from friends all over the world. I heard from many Norwegian friends, a nephew in Southern California, an boss from a job in the 90’s, my husband’s cousin in Indiana, and most surprising, a few dozen of past Airbnb guests: some offering to come stay with them.
When the fire first began, I’d group-texted my daughter, son & their spouses when the fire first started. Hearing my sons concerned voice after my safe arrival, restored the feeling that I in fact, was not alone.
Perhaps it’s in time of crisis, and not just good times, where true love and support is evidenced.
By Sun., July 29, I was home, wearing my N95 respiratory mask while I tended my chickens. It was eerily quiet, except for clucking chickens; no barking dogs, no rush of car noise. My neighborhood was still under evacuation status: Benton and Quartz Hill at Market Street by Caldwell Park, with National Guard roadblocks. No residents are being allowed in, due to it being an “active crime scene”.
It’s a blessed fluke (if those two words can be linked) that I’m one of the few returned evacuees. Thursday, I’d evacuated to a friend’s place across town, and came home Friday to check on my chickens, and found that CHP was allowing people in with proof of residence. I ended up staying the night in my house, since the power was back on.
By Saturday morning, the National Guard was posted at my neighborhood, no longer allowing residents in. I was told by a guard that it was OK for me to stay, but I won’t be allowed back if I left. I decided I was fine in my ghost-town neighborhood. Besides, I’ve never felt as safe in my life, literally under the watch of the National Guard.
I was well-stocked from groceries I bought Thursday morning in anticipation of hosting friends Walt and Stella’s evacuation from fire that swept through their Rock Creek Road neighborhood. My “safe house” was a brief respite, before we all evacuated Thursday night from my place. I was grateful that Walt was there to help me turn off my gas line before we evacuated.
This experience has taught me to not rely upon agencies or authorities to tell me if it is safe, or to wait upon their notification, but to listen to my gut, as well as to others who’ve lived through similar experiences.
Nearly half of Redding was evacuated, and the evacuations continue as the fire burns rural areas of Igo, Happy Valley, Cottonwood and Lewiston.
As of this writing the Carr Fire is 17-percent contained. Redding residents are reeling and in shock. It’s not over, but in the meantime, we each can do our best to be a help beyond thoughts and prayers. With reverence and empathy we can share in the suffering of one another. We can cry with one another, and be available for restoration of this city we love and call home.Click here for more fire stories.