I’m one of the lucky ones, and oh, how I know it.
In fact I think most of us – the lucky ones – are suffering from a little bit of survivor’s guilt. We’re the ones whose homes didn’t burn down last week. The ones who weren’t ordered to evacuate. The ones who didn’t suffer from a loss of income as businesses shuttered when the fire drove out 40,000 people from the west side, emptying downtown Redding, which was already struggling to keep its head above water.
But each of us has been touched by the Carr Fire. For most of us, that touch was more like an assault; a punch in the face. This wife beater of a fire has left a bruise that’ll take a long time to go away. Well, I take that back. It’s not gonna go away. This is going to be like the time I got hit in the shin by a line drive while pitching a co-ed championship game out at Big League Dreams. At first I was in shock, amazed I was still standing, that I hadn’t suffered a compound fracture. Then a huge, ugly knot grew on my leg, purple and green, imprinted with stitches. I hobbled along, and eventually the swelling went down a few weeks later, but when I look at my leg ten years down the road, there’s still a faint, softball sized mark on my leg. It’s fading, but it’ll always be there. This fire’s gonna leave an indelible mark on all of us.
Each of us has a Carr Fire story to tell because this fire has touched every single resident of the region, and each story is absolutely riveting, no matter what the outcome. There are stories like the missing 14 foot albino python that was evacuated from a Lake Boulevard reptile merchant that later escaped in a neighborhood near Kids Kingdom. The snake was eventually discovered next door, coiled up in a milk crate. Neighbors with small dogs and cats were freaked until the snake was found, but the snake’s owner reassured them that dogs and cats could rest easy, the snake was rather fond of chickens.
There are stories of people furiously packing their belongings, trying to decide what was worthy of tossing in the car or being left behind. Stories of people returning home a few days later to find a smoldering mess with nothing recognizable but a statue. And then there’s Parvin Carter’s story.
This is the story that someday – when Hollywood releases the blockbuster film about the night Redding burned – will be one of the fireside tales to unfold on the big screen. It’ll be shown along with the stories of the tragic loss of Melody Bledsoe and her great grandbabies and two men who died heroically battling the blaze and trying to evacuate others as the fire raged into the city. And then there will be Parvin Carter’s incredible and terrifying story of survival. My heart races and the hair stands up on my arms every time I think about it.
If you’re a fan of Pink Martini and live in Redding, you probably know Parvin. When the band played at the Cascade Theatre, they asked if anyone in the audience could speak Turkish and might volunteer to get up and help them with a song. Parvin is the only person in the audience who raised her hand and got up on stage, sang along, dancing magnificently and having a great time. She’s a Redding dentist, and a wonderful, sweet soul who has had a smile on her face every time I’ve ever seen her out and about. But I’m pretty sure if I’d come across her last Thursday evening I would have seen a battle scarred woman who had just looked into the face of a rage filled beast and had barely lived to tell the story. She told it on Facebook the day after it happened, and I’m paraphrasing her experience now. I hope I can do her story justice. I’m sure Hollywood will do better than I can.
After seeing patients all day last Thursday, Parvin Carter drove to her beautiful home off the north side of Buenaventura. There was a fire engine standing vigil on the side of the road near her subdivision, but otherwise, all was quiet. Maybe too quiet. There was no evacuation order, no sign that she should start packing or run for her life.
Before making dinner, Parvin went outside to water the lawn in her slippers, chatting with her daughter on the phone. She was wearing a slip and a shirt. The neighbor was watering their lawn as well. The sky was so ominous and angry, that Parvin stopped to take a photo of the western sky. She had no idea what kind of fury was brewing in those growing, orange and gray clouds.
Moments later, she heard a vehicle drive by, and looked up to see a white SUV, heading towards the community’s gate. And beyond that, a wall of flames behind her neighbor’s homes, headed right for them. If that wall of flames is anything like what other people have described, it was 100 feet high and swirling like a tornado.
Parvin ran inside, yelling at her husband that they had to get out now.
Still in her slippers, the Carters fled the house, towards their SUV, but abandoned that idea when the fire monster began hurling fireballs, which were already landing on the vehicle. They ran to their smaller family car, and took off, initially heading towards the gate, but the neighbors in the SUV told them that there was nothing but fire beyond, and encouraged the Carters to follow them instead. The SUV headed towards a paved walking path with a locked gate, and just crashed through it. The Carters followed. The path petered off into a green belt shortly after that, but they continued on heading east, not knowing where the path would eventually lead them.
Then, the car hit a large hole, stalling. Parvin looked out the back window, and could see a wall of fire heading towards them in a semi-circle. She told her husband that this could be where they die. In a car, on a walking path, with an angry fire barreling down upon them. She could feel the heat, and Parvin prayed for help.
They bailed from the car, running towards the Sacramento River. Helicopters hovered overhead, but were only a distraction from their mission to seek safety from the fire, unable to offer help or extraction.
The couple ran towards another wooded hill, and now they weren’t alone. Parvin said there were deer, fawns, rats and mice running in terror alongside as she tore into the thick brush, suffering scrapes and deep cuts from thorns and branches as she broke through them, oblivious to the pain, just needing to push forward, screaming the whole way, looking for safety. She just ran and ran and ran.
The wind picked up, and Parvin lost sight of her husband. The firenado was bearing down, whipping up dirt and leaves. The term firenado might sound like a joke until you’ve experienced one. The whirl of fire and wind was whipping around at an estimated 143 miles per hour. It was out for blood, excavating trees and tossing them aside, twisting galvanized plumbing pipes around trees, and ripping the siding and roofs off of homes. It was no joke.
After running for so long, Parvin’s legs finally gave out. She slid down a hill, and when she reached the bottom she just sat, out of breath, but screaming for her husband until he burst through from another spot into the clearing a few minutes later.
When the couple was finally reunited, they saw that they had finally made it to something resembling civilization again, with two policemen stationed nearby. They helped transfer them to a private vehicle after telling Parvin that they estimated she had run 3 to 4 miles so far to escape the fire. The car, driven by a woman named Stephanie headed east, the wall of flames still bearing down on them from behind. Parvin told the driver that if she would just drive to the river, they could just jump in and float to safety. But Stephanie pushed on, driving on the shoulder of the road at times to get around other vehicles that were following the rules and exiting the neighborhood in agonizing, tortoiselike fashion.
Eventually, the car made it to Market Street, then ran out of gas, and the Carters walked all the way to Parvin’s downtown office, calling friends who were able to finally get them to a safe location. The next time Parvin saw her home, it was an apocalyptic scene. A shell of its former beauty.
Of course that’s what more than 1000 other families also went home to after the Carr Fire’s gigantic mother of a raging tantrum Thursday night. Some families still haven’t been let in to their neighborhoods in downtown Redding, and its been over a week.
Parvin never received an evacuation order. She got herself out because she saw the threat and made the decision to run for her life. Good call. I was also never evacuated, but lucky me, the fire never presented itself at my door.
My story is so much tamer than Parvin’s that I feel ridiculous even telling it, but I’m holding fast to the idea that everyone has a story that rises from the ashes, no matter how big (like Parvin’s) or how small (like mine). So here it is.
I made the decision to go voluntarily before the sirens and bullhorns came. I had gone to bed Wednesday evening knowing that the fire had changed course and had burned a path to Whiskeytown’s Oak Botttom. I knew that because my friends Mark and Michelle were live streaming the event on Facebook from Brandy Creek, and my neighbor Phil was posting videos of the fire from his boat while he motored out on the lake. I didn’t know it had burned the marina and 40 boats in the water until I woke up the next morning, and discovered that during the night, Phil had lost his boat. By 9 am the fire had already raged on to Old Shasta, eleven miles away.
I did the math. If the fire burned another eleven miles in nine hours, Airport Road could be reached by the next evening. My house was halfway in between. So if the fire kept on at this pace, I had about four hours.
I woke up the kids, and told them it would be prudent to pack the P’s: Pets, Passports, Photos, Papers and Panties and put them in our cars. I instructed them to go about business as usual, but to be vigilant and prepared, and secure a place far on the other side of town for the evening. I brought the dogs with me to work. The back of my Subaru was packed with totes full of photo albums, a videotape of my daughter’s birth and years worth of genealogy work. I had a suitcase, my laptop and my husband’s woodworking tools. Our son took all of the carvings and framed photos that hung on the walls.
I told everyone to go to work like normal, and to be assured that our stuff – packed in our cars and away from the house – should be safe. I went to work, stopping off on the way to gas up. Once I got there, I started diligently pressuring my co-workers in Oregon to start broadcasting evacuation information immediately, because Redding radio stations were dropping like flies, and there weren’t many of us left to tell people what to do and where to go by noon. Fortunately, they listened.
That evening, I took a drive up Hilltop and unwittingly photographed that same angry cloud that Parvin Carter was photographing from a few miles away as she embarked upon the run to save her life. Then I went home and almost immediately received a phone call from my friend Amber, a mile away in Lake Redding Estates. She wanted to know where I was, and then she wanted to know why I hadn’t evacuated from my home yet. I told her I was fine, no evacuations had been ordered in the city yet, but I was ready just in case.
She frantically told me that she had just been ordered out of her home with just seconds to grab her dog and important papers. There were helicopters, there were police on bullhorns. There was a 100 foot wall of flames two blocks behind her house. She said that I needed to go, and I needed to go NOW.
So we went.
We grabbed a few more pieces of artwork off the walls which we loaded into my sons car, and then headed out in separate cars. The kids for friends on the east side, and me towards Ashland. It was 9:30 when we left the house, and it seemed as if all traffic was being routed south. I headed east, towards the freeway, but the closer I got, the more chaotic and desperate people seemed to be. Working traffic lights were sporadic. Lights were out across much of town. When I got to the intersection of Cypress and Churn Creek (I avoided the I-5 interchange on Cypress because it was a freak scene), I was confronted with at least 16 lanes of traffic meeting at what was now a 4-way stop sign instead of a major stoplight, but nobody knew who had the right of way. Some people didn’t even bother stopping. I cautiously made it through the intersection without being t-boned, and after what seemed like an eternity weaving through pitch dark areas of town I ended up back on Highway 44 headed into downtown. I got onto Market Street headed north, and grieved for those who were clogged on the other side of Market Street, inadvertantly heading the same direction I was. I knew that it had to be residents that had just escaped the flames burning the subdivisions of western Redding, including my friend Amber. Their traffic was almost at a standstill, both on Market Street and on Southbound I-5. Mine was moving freely, and I had almost no company when I finally hit the freeway and started heading north to Ashland.
I ended up driving all the way to Coos Bay, because Ashland didn’t seem safe enough.
I came back on Sunday, but a week later, my car is still jammed with totes full of momentos, and my suitcase is still packed, in the hallway outside my bedroom, ready to evacuate at any moment, and I don’t think I’m alone. We might slowly move the momentos back into the house, but for the foreseeable future, I think I’ll always have a bag packed and ready to go, because that’s the new normal for Redding. It could go up in flames at any moment.
Well, that’s my stupid little story, which pales in comparison to everyone who ran for their lives, lost their homes, lost loved ones, lost pets and lost income and many night’s sleep. Feel free to share your own story here, and check out today’s Up In Flames playlist.
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