… 3 Weeks Earlier

Editor's note: If you appreciate being able to read posts like this, and want to ensure ANC's ability to continue publishing similar content, please click here to demonstrate your support and become a paid subscriber for as little as $1.35 a month.

You know how sometimes an opening movie scene will abruptly show some graphic, what-the-hell moment with zero context, such as a dazed, sunburned person floating on a hunk of ship-wreckage in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by blood-thirsty sharks?

And then the real story follows, after the words: 3 weeks earlier 

That’s what keeps coming to mind as I think about how much has happened here in the north state since July 23. Everything before July 23 will be forever regarded as BEFORE THE CARR FIRE, and everything on the other side of that flaming, awful line is AFTER THE CARR FIRE.

Yes, I believe we will rebuild after the Carr Fire. Yes, I believe our communities will be more united because of the Carr Fire. Yes, I believe we will grow stronger from the Carr Fire. But I also believe that the horrific cruelty of the Carr Fire will brand our collective psyche with a deep, searing scar that will haunt us for generations after you and I are long gone.

When I first started writing this piece at 7 p.m. Tuesday night, I felt numb to the latest Carr Fire updates: 214,527 acres; 69-percent contained. The Carr Fire has destroyed 1,077 homes, 22 commercial buildings and 500 other structures. The Carr Fire has damaged 191 homes, 26 commercial buildings and 65 other structures.

Because of the Carr Fire, eight people are dead. Because of the Carr Fire, scores of others are injured, whether when responding, fighting or fleeing the fire.

All those numbers are written in pencil. Keep your eraser handy, because by the time you read this, the Carr Fire will be bigger. The Hirz Fire will be bigger. The Hat Fire will be bigger. The only thing we will know for certain about today is that the fires will be bigger than they were yesterday.

I personally know more than three dozen people who’ve lost their homes to the Carr Fire, some of whom are part of our ANC family of contributors. Two – Doug Craig and Jim Dowling – were courageous enough to share their Carr Fire insights here with us, even before they’d had a chance to heal.

Click here to read Doug Craig’s column, “After Losing Everything, What Remains?”
Click here to read Jim Dowling’s column, “Dug From the Ashes.”

The Carr Fire could be seen for miles around on the evening of Wed. July 25. Photo by Steve DuBois

… 3 weeks earlier

It was after midnight on July 26 when I opened an email from Steve DuBois. He was excited to share some pictures he’d taken following his Wednesday-evening drive out toward Whiskeytown Lake. He’d captured some photos of the 6,000+ acre baby Carr Fire. Wild fires are part of our north-state culture. We’re so used to them. Yawn.

Steve is the kind of enthusiastic guy who often sends unsolicited photos and stories based upon something he finds interesting. And when he does, he takes photos. Lots of photos. So many choices.

I felt conflicted. Appreciative, but distracted. I was slammed, getting everything ready to introduce our soft paywall in a few hours. We wanted everything to be just right.

I replied to Steve’s email. Subject line: So thoughtful. I said thanks, and actually, Joe and I had discussed it, and even though this small Carr Fire story with photos he’d sent was unexpected, actually, perhaps Steve’s timing would be perfect after all, since my column would be behind a paywall for the very first time. This way, it would give readers two stories from which to chose, one behind the paywall, the other – the puny Carr Fire story – would not be behind the paywall. (No segue, but you do know that only about 10 percent of our content is behind a paywall; the rest is forever free. Right?)

Meanwhile, Joe in the Czech Republic, and I here in California, were emailing and messaging each other and frantically getting things ready to push the “on” button to engage aNewsCafe.com’s partial paywall, something I’d written about in a heads up on July 23. 

Of course, how I could I have known when I published that column on July 23 that within three days the relatively insignificant Carr Fire would explode into the monstrous Carr Fire, terrorizing us with death, fear and destruction; eventually sending more than 40,000 of us running for our lives.

Timing. Didn’t see that coming.

As Joe worked on the technical stuff, I got Steve’s post ready and put the final touches on a column I’d worked on all week about my housing solution for Redding’s homeless. It was long (surprise!). I used cuss words. I was about as blunt as I’d ever been about this tired old topic. I held leaders’ feet to the fire. I kind of liked that column, if I do say so myself. I knew I’d get flack for it. I was prepared.

I fell into bed about 4:30 a.m; 3.5 hours after we started the paywall; 30 minutes after we posted my column. A few hours later, with the excitement that I can only compare to Christmas morning, I jumped out of bed to see how things were doing with ANC and our new paywall. I did as I always do when I start my computer each morning; open three tabs in quick succession: ANC, then Gmail, then Facebook.

Immediately, I saw a flood of frantic FB posts about the Carr Fire and how it had erupted in size over night, and had raced east down Highway 299 and seemed hellbent on destroying French Gulch, Shasta and areas closer to Redding, like Rock Creek Road and Victoria Drive.

Hey! Wait a minute! Wild fires are supposed to stay in the wild, far away from towns, subdivisions and cities.

I knew people who lived in all those areas. But the FB post that convinced me for the first time that the Carr Fire was no ordinary wild fire was a video by Chad Fowler, who, with his wife, three children and their animals — including baby goats — all crammed into their vehicle — fled their home under evacuation orders. At the intersection of Victoria Drive and Highway 99 Fowler paused to videotape the flames that appeared across Highway 299. I couldn’t believe it.

His words on the videotape: “It doesn’t look good.”

I yelled two words aloud — inside the house from which I’d be evacuated before the night’s end, in the city in which Chad Fowler’s home would burn to the ground, and where Steve DuBois would be severely injured during a fall from a deck in the dark while helping a friend evacuate.

Holy shit!

Suddenly, nothing else mattered. Not the paywall, not the stupid opinion column I’d written about the homeless-housing issue … nothing else. At ANC we immediately started posting fire updates, and in no time the site was overwhelmed with traffic. Suddenly, ANC went haywire. It crashed, then came alive. Crashed, then came alive. Over and over. We kept posting new updates. By nightfall I’d written and published a post of Carr Fire vignettes: fire stories, time-lapsed Carr Fire photos, spectacular fire photos and the Fowler’s evacuation story.

Despite all that, even though this freaky fire was obviously abnormally aggressive, I still had faith that our trusty firefighters would slap down this flaming sucker and we’d all resume life as normal by morning.

But it wasn’t normal. It still isn’t. Not by a long shot. And I don’t have to tell you what’s happened between then and now. Since July 26, ANC has been pretty much Carr Fire, 24/7, as I suspect it’s been for many of you.

That’s why, on the morning of July 26 we pulled the plug on my homeless-solution column (read by 152 of you) and put it on ice. Right now, I cannot imagine ever publishing it. But maybe that’s the Carr Fire talking.

What you might not have known is that we also disabled our paywall before it was even 1 day old. We couldn’t justify keeping it up during such a dire time of tragedy and angst, when tens of thousands of people were simultaneously panicked for fire updates. And although we’ll never put public safety stories behind a paywall, I didn’t want any confusion about whether we would or wouldn’t charge readers for public-safety information. (No. Not ever.)

Meanwhile, though, the site kept having difficulties. Believe me when I assure you that if there were a Frustration Contest, our ANC team would have won, hands down. We heard from many of you who alerted us every time you got an error message. We love that we can count on you to keep us abreast of what’s happening. It’s nice to know you care enough to let us know.

I won’t bore you with all the technical details (most of which I don’t grasp anyway), but in addition to some glitches related to the strain of extraordinarily high traffic, unbeknownst to us, there was one lurking, misbehaving plugin, even though technically, it was disabled.

The damn paywall plugin.

Oh, the wicked irony of it all! Without the paywall, ANC would soon fail. With the plugin, the site would crash and burn.

Over the next few weeks, two continents apart, our fabulous tech guys Joe Domke and Jim Gore worked many, many hours. Finally, with some even more advanced help, Joe was able to solve the plug-in problem once and for all.

We’ve reinstalled the plug-in. The soft paywall is up and working fine. (Everyone please pause now and knock on wood.) Best of all, we’re gaining new paid subscribers every day. Maybe you’re one of them. If so, words cannot fully express the depths of my gratitude. I appreciate you so much!

Yes, we have had some issues with those of you who subscribed early, voluntarily (thank you, bless you!) after my Valentine’s Day column. The basic issue is that we created a subscription account for you with a randomly generated password and you just need to reset your password to login. You early subscribers have already paid, so you should have full access to the site. You will have full access to the site. If you are a paid subscriber who’s still having access problems, PLEASE don’t give up! Please let Joe know at joedomke@gmail.com. He will make things right so you don’t miss a single story.

I know, in the scheme of things, this site is a small thing. But our team takes what we do very seriously, and the fact that you care enough to pay to read our premium content tells us that you think this community website has value.

And if I still have the occasional moment when I wonder whether what we do at ANC matters, I’m going to re-read a note that a woman delivered to my door Monday morning, while I was still in my robe. At first I didn’t recognize her, because she was wearing a mask. Not only is she a loyal reader, but she’s a pillar of this community. That morning, she’d navigated my concrete stairs (a feat for many people) with the aid of her cane. She handed me this note, apparently, something she’d planned to leave on my door had I not answered.

Loyal reader note.

Doni, my house was totally destroyed and somehow I lost the NewsCafe.com access. I tried at least a million times to set a new password & get on to no avail. Can you see that I am reconnected?

She was one of aNewsCafe’s early subscribers, and a long-time reader. I promised her that Joe would make everything right, and he has. She’s back to reading aNewsCafe.com, catching up on all stories she’d missed, including one by Mike Mojoarro, in which she could see her own home engulfed in flames next door to Mojarro’s house in the video.

Let me get this straight. She fled from her home. Her house burned down. She lost everything. She’s living in a rental. But she missed aNewsCafe.com enough that she wrote me a note, found my house, walked up the steps with a cane, rang the doorbell and asked me to help her get reconnected so she wouldn’t miss another day of stories.

I made my promise. We said goodbye. I shut the door. I bawled like a baby.

And guess what? Unlike the majority of my writing, this column is not currently behind a paywall, for two reasons.

First, it’s so I can reach you early subscribers who may still be having difficulty getting beyond the paywall, so we can get the message to you to contact us and we’ll help you get connected again.

Second, we’ve decided that we will give free one-year memberships to anyone who’s lost their home in the Carr Fire. If that’s you, and you want to be a ANC subscriber, please email me at donig.anewscafe@gmail.com with your name and your former address and we’ll make it happen. And if you’re like the loyal subscriber who’s already paid, who lost her home and left me a note, her next year’s subscription is free.

Thanks to that woman, and many more of you who’ve become paid subscribers, we are optimistic about ANC’s future. For the first time in a long time, we see a light at the end of the tunnel.

And thank God, it’s not a fire.

Click here for more fire stories.  
Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
Comment Policy: We welcome your comments, with some caveats: Please keep your comments positive and civilized. If your comment is critical, please make it constructive. If your comment is rude, we will delete it. If you are constantly negative or a general pest, troll, or hater, we will ban you from the site forever. The definition of terms is left solely up to us. Comments are disabled on articles older than 90 days. Thank you. Carry on.

20 Responses

  1. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    When the Carr Fire first broke out The Washington Post had an article about it with the usual uninformed comments about it. I posted an ANews link and said how this was coming from Redding and that the site had a paywall but I didn’t know if it was up. An immediate response to my posting was, “They took it down, THANKS!”
    Just like the fine article ANews had about the Rancho Tehama shooting I posted a link to ANews on an article in The Denver Post. The replies to my comment had also been thank yous.
    ANews, like other small local online news sources, gives a more personal touch to stories that the big media just gloss over, maybe send a reporter who has no real interest.
    I read on ANews the many links posted by some commenters on here to other media sources to support their own views. Do those same commenters post a link to ANews on those media sources they seem to search? If not, they should.

    • Bruce, thank you for being here as a loyal reader, contributor and subscriber, and for your kind words. I’m grateful you’re part of our online family.

    • Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

      I think the operative word here is CONTEXT. It takes more than boots-on-the-ground to build context, . . . it takes RESIDENCE on the ground to build context. Visiting reporters, even if they mean well and even if they TRY to be present in their stories,simply do not have the long-view context from which to report. Thank you, Bruce, for facilitating that quality by sending links to the news outlets.

      • Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

        I remember years ago when the Loma Prieta earthquake happened how after three days a survivor was found in the wreckage of the collapsed Oakland freeway. He turned out to be from Weaverville and the reporters swarmed on Weaverville interviewing his family. Their biggest concern was, Where is the night life in Weaverville? Tragically the survivor died after several days in the hospital.

  2. Avatar Catherine Makinson says:

    Wow, Doni, your writing is amazing! I so can’t get through a day without reading ANC. Redding has so much heart and your contributors are topnotch in my opinion.

    • Cathy, words to my ears (eyes?) that you can’t get through a day without ANC. And I think ANC contributors are top notch, too. Without them, the site would be nothing.

      I appreciate you and Bruce for being part of it all. Thank you!

  3. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    Good one, Doni. Although the local television stations did – and are still doing – an outstanding job of covering the fires, ANC’s columns are the true heart of the community. We are fortunate and grateful for the excellent writing that has appeared here. Who knew that Jim Dowling was a raconteur as well as a wonderful photographer? Thanks to all who took the time to tell your stories.

    • I have the utmost of respect for the other media. We all do what we do with whatever resources we have.

      In addition to Doug Craig and Jim Dowling, I’m in awe of all the ANC people who shared their Carr Fire stories: Barbara Rice, Matt Grigsby, Valerie Ing Miller, Hal Johnson, Steve DuBois, Shelly Shively, and R.V. Schiede; the reporting of Jon Lewis, Candace Brown and Aaron Williams, and the Carr Fire-related contributions of Doug Mudford, Dan Adams, Mike Mojarro, Julie Kaplan, Margaret Beck, Karen Hafenstein, Paula Soito,

      (And yes, Jim Dowling is multi-talented as both a photographer and a writer.)

  4. Avatar Richard Christoph says:

    Doni, this powerful piece fully displays your commitment, passion, and generosity. Thanks.

  5. Avatar Linda Cooper says:

    OMG. So I wasn’t the only “woman” who had this experience. Only I reached out via email. I like the personal approach much better. In-between tears, finally a smile. And no on the free subscription, but thank you. If anything, I intend to increase my amount. Obviously the community energy means a lot to many, and there’s some mighty fine writing going on in the Cafe. Including yours.

  6. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    Damn sinuses.

  7. Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

    I, personally, can attest to the fact that Joe Domke is an international superhero flying to the aid of the citizenry of the metropolis of anewscafe.com!!!
    Joe was able to heal my anewscafe.com wall problems with alacrity . . . . as would be expected of any superhero!!
    Fly on, Joe, and don’t get tangled in your cape!!

  8. Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

    . . . . and to Doni: how smart and foresightful of you to give birth to a superhero!!

  9. Avatar Carolyn Dokter says:

    I too had issues, but Joe was right there to calm me down and took care of things. Saint Joe and Angel Doni ! I don’t know how you do it! Sounds corny but it’s true.

  10. Terry Turner Terry Turner says:

    Again, thank you for a wonderful description of our experience. I think the saying kids use now is “I’m not crying. You’re crying.” (I have learned to read the wonderful ANC stories with Kleenex at hand.)

    And I’m so glad to subscribe because I, too, always go to ANC to find out what’s happening, and gain insight on our issues (and of course I love the stories that make me laugh or grin, too.)

    Thank you for ANC, Doni, and thanks to all who support this community treasure.:-)

  11. Avatar Robert Scheide Sr. says:

    I was one of the early contributors and couldn’t get in. An email to Joe fixed the problem.

    I live on the east side of I 5 and we got an evac call with not a lot of explanation. So we rounded up three dogs and a cat and off we went to visit RV in our old house in Whitmore. I am sure other people had to drive up to 300 miles to find a place to sleep. We had to do it twice thank you RV and Kelsey.

    Between the Carr fire and the Mendocino fire made it look like half of California was on fire. I lived through the last Mendocino fire and evacuated with two really old folks, this time we were the old folks.

    Through it old TNC kept us informed with constant updates which became a major news source for those of us anxiously watching every move of this monster. A fire tornado, one scary beast that took one life and we were lucky that more didn’t get whacked. That beast had winds of 160 mph and advanced at speeds faster than you can run. One can only imagine the fear that gripped the firefighters as they watched this monster advance with little they could do till that thing calmed down.

    Take a minute to think about what the firefighters were facing 100 degree plus temps, a fire so hot it melted everything in its path and at times moving faster than they could run. 24+ hours working on the line. A task one can only imagine how tired they were and just had a period of rest then back into the fray.

    Will the folks burned out rebuild? The estimate for just cleaning up the debris $70,000 and insurance doesn’t cover in most cased much of that. Assuming you get past that, you are faced with contractors who will, of course, jack their prices. Rumors of the rebuild down Santa Clara way say they are trying to get $400 per square to rebuild. Normal prices are around $200 per square foot.

    It will be a herculean task to find enough contractors to build a 1000 plus homes. I wish all those who lost everything all the luck in the world to get to back to something like normal.

    The problem of what to do with all those dead and dying remains. For my money cutting them down and burning them should be among the last option, but maybe the only way. I am not like the idea of putting all that CO2 into the air.

    Best of luck to all.

  12. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    Thank you for this great article Doni. Robert Scheide Sr. voiced a lot of concerns many of us have for the future. Building codes and regulations have changed from when many of these homes were built decades ago. I have helped people dig out after a fire and so I’ve signed up for all the help I can get. I have no idea where 1000 burned refrigerators, stoves, cars, air-conditioning units, TVs, etc are going to go, but I’m leaving it to experienced disaster clean up crews to handle this herculean task. Clean up will take months. Again, great article Doni.

  13. Avatar George Koen says:

    I do understand the context of your homeless story. I lost nothing but peace of mind and clean air. My stress levels became as unhealthy as the air. I spent much time wondering about those directly affected.

    Even so, when it is appropriate, I do hope you will publish that piece Doni.