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Randall Smith hobbled down the slippery gully trail, nursing a bad right hip. He stopped next to a section of dirt embankment scorched black by the Carr Fire, a marker signifying the flames had stopped there, instead of spreading uphill into the Sunset Terrace neighborhood above and burning everything in its path, including Smith’s home of 44 years.
“Volunteers did extensive work behind all of these homes,” said Smith, 74, a volunteer himself who has donated 7000 hours to non-native plant eradication in Redding’s open space areas since he retired from a successful anesthesiology practice in 1999.
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“We lost 14 homes out of 168, we’re one of the least affected neighborhoods [in west Redding] by the fire,” he said. “It took very little work to avoid what in other neighborhoods was a holocaust.”
Smith identifies with Cassandra, the figure from Greek mythology blessed with the gift of prophecy but cursed to be ignored by the public. After 18 years of supervising environmental clean-up crews in Redding’s open space areas, he’s become acutely aware of the fire risk in the wildland urban interface, the space where wilderness brushes up against subdivisions, and he’s attempted to sound the alarm.
Like Cassandra, those warnings have occasionally fallen on deaf ears. During the latest clean-up of Sunset Terrace, Smith tried to persuade one neighbor to cut back the brush in the open space next to his property line. The neighbor refused because the brush provided cover for deer. Now the deer, the brush and the neighbor’s house are gone, taken by the Carr Fire.
Other homes in Sunset Terrace, including an exact replica of the Alabama governor’s mansion and a house surrounded by ornamental bamboo the owner refused to remove, were razed by the Carr Fire. Because some homes made it and other homes didn’t, some observers have characterized the Carr Fire as “capricious,” a description Smith refutes.
“People have the idea that there was nothing we could do on the 26th and 27th of July and that is simply not true,” he said.
Smith firmly believes many of the 1,079 residences, 22 commercial structures and 503 outbuildings destroyed in Redding and Shasta County by the Carr Fire, along with eight human lives, could have been saved—using existing resources—if the city and county prioritized the clean-up and maintenance of open spaces in the region’s wildland urban interface.
Last Friday, Smith took me on a tour of the creeks, canyons and hillsides he’s been helping maintain for nearly two decades as a volunteer. From Sunset Terrace, he pointed north toward Stanford Hills a half-mile away, where the Carr Fire came roaring down the hillside and jumped the Sacramento River for a second time, spreading into Palatine Hills and up the slope to his neighborhood.
The fire also approached from the west, burning its way toward west Redding from Whiskeytown Lake. Sunset Terrace was caught in a pincer movement by the fire, but the preventative measures volunteer crews have performed over the years, combined with easier access to the neighborhood for fire crews, helped stop the conflagration from spreading further into Redding.
Smith is one of those retired guys who hasn’t actually retired. After his career as an anesthesiologist ended in 1998, he joined the Rotary Club in 1999 and assumed command of its environmental committee, and has been involved with cleaning up Redding’s open space areas ever since.
In addition to supervising inmate crews from the Sugar Pine Conservation Camp, he’s worked with the California Conservation Corps, Bethel’s City Project, the Sierra Club, the Boy Scouts, the city’s Community Creek Clean Up program, high school students and neighbors. He’s kept records of the volunteer work done by these groups, and estimates they have contributed $3.5 million in value to the city since 2005.
Smith figures at least 2000 acres of Redding’s 8000 acres of open space are in dire need of maintenance for fire protection purposes. He dismissed the proposal floated by the Redding City Council late last week to create a city-wide landscape maintenance district funded by a parcel tax as self-defeating.
“Nobody will vote for a new tax in Redding,” he said. For him, it’s a matter of priorities. “There’s all kinds of funding after the fire, but in front of the fire, there’s nothing. There should be a moratorium on soccer fields and ball diamonds until we get this mess fixed. It’s nice to have amenities, but another Carr Fire could happen tomorrow. It could happen this afternoon.”
A large portion of Smith’s volunteer time was spent fighting arundo donax, the giant reed also known as the weed from hell. Smith said the non-native plant was introduced in the north state to provide erosion control for rivers and streams. It thrived, but then scientists discovered it destroys salmon habitat. Smith set himself to eradicating all of the arundo in Shasta County, and by his account, nearly succeeded. However, winning came at a cost.
“I believe I donated my right hip applying 67 tons of properly diluted herbicide to the non-native plants of Shasta County by use of a backpack sprayer weighing forty pounds,” he explained.
He’s getting the hip replaced in January.
From Sunset Terrace, Smith drove east to Diestelhorst Bridge, where an 80-acre field of overgrown weeds separates the Sacramento River from the Lakeview subdivision on the ridge above. Decades ago, the field was a successful row farm operated by the Diestelhorst family. It is now owned by the city and has fallen into neglect.
When Smith and other volunteers first began working on it in 2009, the field was thick with Himalayan blackberries and totally inaccessible to the public. It presented an enormous fire hazard to Lakeview and nearby downtown Redding.
“Everybody thinks the fire will never get into town,” he said. “But it’s already here.”
They’ve knocked down most of the blackberries, but the overgrown field remains a fire hazard. Smith, who has cut back on his field work because of his injured hip, was distressed no one else has picked up the slack.
“This can be mowed in one day with a 50-inch mower,” he said. “I know that because I did it this spring. You can’t have these resources and not maintain them.”
From the Diestelhorst open space, we drove north across the river to Upper Churn Creek, an area that along with Stillwater Creek was formerly clogged with arundo until Smith’s eradication efforts. There was no sign of the giant reeds, but tall grass and brush covered the wide creek bed which Smith likened to a wick just waiting for an errant spark and a 20 mph breeze to blow the fire into east Redding.
They’re easy to forget because many of them are intermittent or dried up, but there are 35 major streams in Redding. Smith knows all of them and most are in his view fuses on bombs waiting to be lit. As we followed Churn Creek into town, Smith called off the creeks’ names, Boulder, Candlewood, Newton, noting their proximity to neighborhoods and businesses.
We continued driving south on I-5. As we approached the Bonnyview exit and the River Bend open space, Smith noted that the area has never been properly cleaned and laddered. “It will become a bomb that takes out everything south of Bonnyview,” he predicted.
Smith waited in the truck while I hiked Angler’s Trail to the river’s edge, passing through a small forest of gray pines and oaks with mansions visible through the trees on either side of the trail. Even though volunteers have previously cleaned up the area, it is once again overgrown and in need of maintenance.
On the other side of the river, the foliage was thick from the bank to the luxurious homes and office buildings sitting atop the bluffs, like bombs waiting to go off.
As the tour continued, I realized Smith was driving in a clockwise circle around Redding’s city limits, linked by the open spaces he’s put 7000 hours of his life into. It seems incongruous, but one-fifth of the city’s 40,000 acres is basically wild land, much of it packed with highly combustible fuel.
We pulled into the Henderson open space and Smith lamented once again that the clean-up work appears to have fallen behind. As with several of the sites we visited, there were slash piles waiting to be burned and chip piles waiting to be hauled off. The blackberries were neck-high in some spots. Several transients loitered nearby. The Sacramento River gurgled beneath the Cypress Street Bridge.
As we made our way westward on Buenaventura Boulevard, completing the ring of fire tour, Smith speculated on who might do the maintenance work that desperately needs to be done on a continual basis.
The city could take more advantage of the inmate labor available from Sugar Pine, which charges $250 per day for a 10-man crew. It could provide shelter to homeless people in exchange for doing the work. Parks and Recreation could focus on maintaining open space instead of soccer fields and ball diamonds.
Later, Smith provided me some ballpark numbers on the cost of cleaning up Redding’s open space areas on a one-time basis. Using the state’s rate for unskilled labor, $20 per hour, Smith figures the cost ranges from $200,000 to $3.2 million.
“The problem with these numbers is the equipment, transportation, administrative overhead, permits and chemical costs [aren’t included] which raises the figure substantially, but it’s still peanuts compared with the loss of the Carr Fire.”
The upper range of his estimate is in the neighborhood of the amount the city council’s proposed city-wide landscape maintenance district expects to raise annually, but Smith is adamant that the citizens of Redding won’t support a new tax, even after living through the Carr Fire disaster.
He’s also concerned the proposed tax, to be discussed at this week’s city council meeting, will be assessed on parcels based on their distance from the city center, when in reality, the fire danger is everywhere.
“It’s morally repugnant,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”
What drives this man who’s literally put his body on the line for Redding’s open spaces?
“I believe I am driven to make things better because our kind has taken more than we have given,” he said. “Atonement must be made before it is too late.”
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