Ring Of Fire: A Tour of Redding’s Most Flammable Spaces

Slash piles burned by volunteers at Henderson Open Space. Photo by Randall Smith.

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.

Where the Carr Fire stopped on the Palatine Trail. Photo by Randall Smith.

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 has nothing but praise for Bethel’s City Project team. Photo by Randall Smith.

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.

Randall Smith at Upper Churn Creek. Photo by R.V. Scheide.

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.

The view from Angler’s Trail in River Bend Open Space. Photo by R.V. Scheide.

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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R.V. Scheide
R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas. He can be emailed at RVScheide@anewscafe.com.
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31 Responses

  1. Thank you for getting this message to the people of Redding!

  2. Avatar Candace C says:

    Randall Smith,
    Thank you for all of your blood, sweat and tears, I personally think you have some very good workable ideas. R.V. Thank you for this article.

  3. Avatar Robert Wallenberg says:

    A very informative article! Sounds doable. Too bad we can’t clone Dr. Smith.

  4. Avatar Robert Wallenberg says:

    A very informative article! Sounds doable.

  5. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    So glad you’re back with yet another in-depth article, R.V. Dr. Smith’s Friday comment that another Carr Fire could happen today or tomorrow nearly came true on Sunday with the Masonic Fire. I continue to feel that the City Council wears blinders about Redding’s real needs. Ridding open space of both homeless camps and overgrown vegetation would make Redding nearly fireproof. But instead, illegal homeless camps appear to be legal, and open space continues to be choked with overgrown vegetation.

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      City Council doesn’t exactly wear blinders on those issues. They put a public safety tax on the ballot to deal in part with the homeless issue. They are moving toward putting a fire safety tax on the ballot to deal with the vegetation management issue. I think the consensus here is that the latest tax initiative stands scant chance of passing, given recent history.

      Arguably, it’s Redding voters who are wearing the blinders.

      • R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

        A good case can be made that the city council is wearing blinders: The Local Hazard Mitigation Plan, completed in 2015, clearly spelled out the risk from fire to the entire city and in fact describes a potential event that fits the Carr Fire exactly. Yet the city did not incorporate any of the mitigation suggestions into the Parks and Open Space plan. This is the basis of developer Jaxon Baker’s lawsuit against the city.

        • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

          True, that case can be made. But incorporating mitigation measures requires funding, and the City is underfunded and over-obligated. There’s simply no budget to scalp the urban-wildland interface every year or two.

          And of course, a good argument could be made that developers and the City are both to blame for developing areas on the West side of town where fire danger is extreme (and likely always will be) without forcing developers to adequately mitigate the fire danger as part of the development, in perpetuity. Would that make those areas impossible to develop? Maybe that would have been for the best, regarding much of that area.

          • R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

            Regardless of future development, we’ve definitely built a nice little fire trap for ourselves. In the back of our minds, we always knew it could all go up in smoke. Why would anyone build here, knowing those risks? A new replica of the Alabama gov. mansion is going up right now in Sunset Terrace as I”m SMDH.

            On another note, I think Redding and Shasta County can find help addressing fuel load issues in open spaces and forests if we embrace the state’s Forest Climate Plan. Burning biomass to make energy (and burying the remains) can create a net carbon deficit if done properly, and is gaining popularity again, even among some environmentalists.

            To me, it’s two birds with one stone: we can reduce our carbon footprint and our fire risk at the same time, if we match the scale and pace required.

            I’m not holding my breath for this to happen though.

          • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

            I can understand a one-time breach of taste that would inspire someone with new money to build a replica of the Alabama governor’s mansion as their home in Redding, California. And I don’t feel a strong need to speculate in unflattering terms why they picked that particular edifice of Deep South politics, history and culture…though I could.

            But twice?! That’s really hard to fathom.

  6. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    I’m going to play devil’s advocate this morning.

    I agree that the tax proposal likely has the same fate as a snowball in Hell, but why not support it for now? It’s possible that enough people were shocked by the Carr Fire’s devastation that it might pass. What’s gained by talking down that small possibility of success?

    We’re all in this together? No, we’re not. I owned a house in Sunset Terrace until recently, and I can tell you that those who live with canyon views—the majority of houses that burnt down—are in a different tax bracket than the modal Reddingite. It’s further true that the modal Reddingite will tend to see those wealthy canyon-viewers as me-first conservatives of the type who voted against the effort to pass the public safety tax. If I’m a modal Reddingite, my response to “we’re all in this together” collectivism regarding wildfire safety is a bitter laugh.

    People who own houses on the very edge of the wildland-urban interface are like people who own houses on floodplains. I live on North Cow Creek in Palo Cedro and pay floodplain insurance because of the higher risk I’m taking. My neighbors farther away from the creek do not, even though many might flood in a big event—the flood equivalent of the Carr Fire. I don’t see that it’s morally repugnant to draw lines based on probabilities. People taking higher risks should pay more.

    A reckoning is coming for those risk-takers—if not in the form of a graduated fire safety tax based on relative risk, then certainly in the form of higher homeowner insurance rates.

    • R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

      I agree, let’s give the latest tax proposal a proper hearing before we shoot it down. I don’t think the money can be had in the present budget by merely shifting priorities. However, I don’t think fire risk is confined strictly to canyon dwellers, a lot of homes that weren’t on ridgetops got taken in the Carr Fire, and virtually every neighborhood in Redding is adjacent to some sort of open space. Prevention efforts should be focused on cleaning up the wildland urban interface and there needs to be a local, state and federal fundraising effort to complete the task. These mitigation goals fit nicely with the state’s climate change plan for our forests, which already provides grant funding for such activities–although I notice Shasta County and Redding are so far not on the list of grantees.

      • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

        That’s why I couched risk in terms of relative risk instead of absolute risk, and used the analogy of flood risk. All of my neighbors are in danger of flooding during a 500-year flood. Those of us in the 100-year floodplain are the only ones required to purchase floodplain insurance. Under ideal circumstances those in the 500-year floodplain would pay a lil’ something and I’d pay a little less than I’m paying now. Those outside the 500-year floodplain would pay nothing.

        Analogously, in Redding those whose properties abut the urban-wildland interface could pay the highest, those within a block or two somewhat less, and those in the middle of neighborhoods even less. The idea that we all need to share the risks and costs equally is absurd and hard to swallow, especially when it would primarily benefit people who are anti-collectivists on just about every other topic.

        Keep in mind that the Carr Fire was an anomaly—most wildfires are going to primarily threaten those on Redding’s U-W interface. If the “firenado” is the new normal, torching whole neighborhoods, we’re screwed no matter what.

  7. Terry Turner Terry Turner says:

    Your article is so well-written, as usual. Thank you for so clearly articulating the need, and thank you to Dr. Smith for all he has done to help us all.

    I am living in a small, simple community near the railroad tracks, south of Benton Drive. I was evacuated in the Carr fire, which was stopped only one-half mile from my home. On Sunday, as I watched the smoke column come closer, I was packing to evacuate again. I would Love Not to have to pack to evacuate from a wildfire again, and the idea that the solution to this is within our grasp is a glorious thought.

    The Masonic fire appears to have been caused by a transient cooking in a ravine area if I have it correctly? With all the undergrowth and the 50 mile an hour wind gusts, that outdoor cooking was a recipe for disaster. (Thank God for our amazing fire fighters.)

    You are so right that wildfires could happen anywhere in Redding – in the wealthy communities and in our more basic communities. If there are sparks, and undergrowth near by, next comes conflagration. We all lose. As you say, we need to clean up the wildland urban interface, with local, state and federal fundraising to complete the task. And then we need to maintain the clean up.

    I appreciate everyone and every idea trying to fix the issue of the vegetation and has become fuel for wildfires. Thank you all! If I never have to pack to evacuate because of a wildfire again, that would be fantastic. We Can do this together.

    • R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

      It will be interesting to see the details of the city’s proposed city-wide landscaping district. From what I’ve read so far, it appears they’re considering a single tax for all homeowners that will not be based on geographic location. From the tour I took with Dr. Smith, I think this would be appropriate. The concern of course is that the anti-tax sentiment in Redding will nullify any effort to do something about the issue. Hope the city has a Plan B.

      • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

        Yeah but……would not a graduated tax, married to level of risk, perhaps help the thing pass a vote? It’s just unrealistic to say that everyone is equally at risk—they’re not. It seems like a proposed flat tax on an extremely gradated risk is asking most Redding citizens to chump themselves.

        If I’m living in Garden Track or most of Enterprise, I’d be more likely to vote “yes” if I’m not getting hit with the full assessment for my relatively low risk. I’d also be willing to pay a little more if I owned property on the West side or anywhere else on the periphery of town, because any cost subsidized by others is less that I’d have to pay on my own or by neighborhood assessment.

        On the other hand, if I’m sitting in a modest tract home in Enterprise, struggling to make ends meet, and I’m being asked to pay the full price to protect what I view as Posse Riverview’s palatial abodes in the hills of West Redding, my answer is probably going to be: Not only no, but HELL no.

        • R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

          I think in a response above I agreed with you, perhaps it should be assessed according to the parcel’s risk. It might stand a better chance of passing. Smith seemed pretty convinced that what the city will suggest is a parcel task weighted by risk, and that that proposal wouldn’t fly either, and therefore, nothing will be done except a new report. “Napkin money,” he calls it. I guess we’ll find out more after today’s meeting.

          • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

            When the citizens of a city refuse to pay for the things that they desperately need, that city is in deep scheisse. I live in an unincorporated ‘burb in the County, but Redding is the city where I obtain nearly all of my services and entertainment—and where my daughter lives and owns a home—and I hate to see it circling the drain.

            The failure of the public safety tax was one of the last straws for me when we were deciding whether or not to move back to Palo Cedro. If the fire safety tax craters too, I’ll have another affirmation of my decision……one that I don’t really want.

          • R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

            What would you call a county that refuses to fund its own safety? A shithole county? Is that going too far?

  8. Avatar Egon Harrasser says:

    Thank you very much for your review and input on what we should be doing to avoid another wildfire threatening our community. We are having a potential fire problem just south of Sunset drive.
    The City of Redding has a city “Right of Way” all along the whole extend up from Eureka Way. There is a lot of dry, dead vegetation which need to be cleaned up… I will try, with the help of neighbors, to get this done. I wish you all the best with your upcoming surgery, Egon Harrasser

  9. Avatar Alice Bell says:

    I note that the area north of Benton drive from Barbara Rd. west to the Pump House 4 is tinder dry and thick with weeds, trees and shrubs. Who owns that property and why haven’t they been required to thin it out to reduce the fire potential?

    • R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

      Could be lack of code enforcement, or perhaps no money for fire prevention. There’s areas like that all over town.

  10. Frank Treadway Frank Treadway says:

    I find the City of Redding on the verge of bankruptcy when the next dry period comes, is it next Summer, is it this Winter ? We all know of those canyons, swales and City owned property that runs right up behind private property and is completely dry with grass, pine trees and mounds of blackberries that are just waiting to combust into fast growing fires. The City of Redding has access to grants from Cal Fire and other sources. As mentioned we have prison farms nearby, we have some 300 inmates in the county jail at all times, I’m sure 15% of them would be fine to do this kind of clean-up. We have a local CA Conservation Corps who do excellent work on jobs like this. Form a local Public Works Project, just like the one created by FDR. When private homes and businesses are at stake, money should be no object. New property codes need to be implemented. The City needs to make something happen yesterday.

  11. Avatar Johanna Anderson says:

    Suddenly that lovely home in my neighborhood, the one closer to the creek (Creek? More like dried-up, overgrown ditch) looks far less appealing. Here’s a thought: perhaps the city and Shasta College could partner up? Vegetation management, urban-wildland interfaces, public lands management, together with GIS mapping… a can envision a robust academic program driven by hands-on, applied experience coming from this (on going) disaster.

  12. Avatar Hollis Pickett says:

    Everything is contained in the last sentence! Humans are the only life form that can reproduce beyond the capacity of our environment to support us. We become complacent – secure in our ability to create our own shelter, deliberately grow the food we need and, perhaps most important of all, move water to wherever it’s needed. We are using resources much faster than they can be replaced. In many cases, those replacement resources are sub-standard. We have pockets of awareness, but fail to connect the dots. The rice farmer in Korea isn’t thinking about the rainforest devastation in Brazil. The price for our willful neglect will be exacting and pitiless. In support of Randall’s efforts, I would refer everyone to Kathleen Gilman’s excellent article regarding environmentally conscious habitat modification. Great article, R.V. !

  13. AJ AJ says:

    I live on the crest of a hill overlooking one of those jack pine/manzanita loaded canyons. I get anxiety stomach cramps every summer from July until we get our first rain. There is a very busy road down one side of this little draw, all it would take would be one careless cigarette or spark from a car and 18 homes would be gone immediately! I, for one, would gladly pay a tax to have a year round program working on proper restoration of these areas.
    Also, in response to Hollis’ comment above. I doubt that many of us, whether ordering a fast-food burger or an upscale fillet mignon realize a connection between beef consumption of beef and the decimation of the rain forest in Brazil.

  14. Avatar Gwen Tough says:

    Some Thoughts, skimming through this article and all the comments. Young people-high school/college kids! They are the ones who should be enlisted somehow to help with “cleaning up” the fire prone weeds and other dead material. Paid by the hour by the city-I’m sure it would be FAR LESS than a massive tax!! Make it fun! Kids have new hips and joints and can tolerate the heat. Why pay for inmates? Our young people need summer jobs. Many colleges get out very early and many kids would be available before summer heat sets in.
    Another thought: the same material that can turn creeks into what Smith calls a “bomb” (is that inflammatory language or what? ) are the same things that protect creeks from erosion. There was major erosion on our property, along Stillwater Creek, during the 2016-17 torrential storms. Bamboo, which has a badf reputation and has been taken out of many creeks, actually protects land from erosion by its very tenacity.
    Another thought: would the City have more money for this, and many other badly needed projects, if city workers weren’t able to retire with amazing pensions and lifetime health care benefits for themselves and their spouses at age 50 or thereabouts? Frontline on PBS is running an excellent program about how public pensions can’t be sustained without wrecking the entire economy of a city or state. This is a firestorm of another kind.