FAC Net's co-director, Michelle Medley-Daniel, was about 20 miles (as the crow flies) from the Carr Fire. In this post, she shares some of her journal entries from last summer. Photo credit: Nick Goulette, Watershed Research and Training Center

Views of the Carr Fire: Journal Entries from Trinity County, California

By: Michelle Medley-Daniel, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, Watershed Research and Training Center

Topic: Evacuation outreach/planning Wildfire

Type: Essay

July 20, 2018

I picked you up from the Redding airport on a cloudless Friday afternoon. You remarked on the hot wind.

“They’re sculptures. Twisted limbs reaching skyward.” You say how much you love the gray pines and the knobcones as we come over the rise between Old Shasta and the Whiskeytown Visitor Center. This front-country vegetation is front-of-mind as we drive westward. Manzanita, chamise, and ceanothus mixed with knobcone and gray pines give way to Doug fir and sugar pines as we climb Buckhorn.

Gray pine and surrounding vegetation

Credit: Matthew Lotakoon shared via Flickr Creative Commons

July 23, 2018

An elderly couple travels the same route: Highway 299 West. As they near French Gulch, one of the tires on the fifth-wheel trailer they’re hauling fails. Sparks fly into the dry vegetation on the hillslope: the Carr Fire begins.

Simulation of the Carr Fire using CALFIRE’s “sand” sim table. Video by Stacy Stanish.

Posted by Active Norcal on Thursday, August 2, 2018

July 26, 2018

We all stand transfixed gazing across the mountains to the east where not one, but two of the largest smoke plumes any of us have ever seen inflate like giant hot air balloons. Within a half-hour they’ve grown thousands of feet, pushing higher into the atmosphere, bursting through the lenticular clouds that have formed caps on their tops. “Incredible. Unbelievable. Wow.” We struggle to put words to what is unfolding before us. The theoretical becoming real.

July 27, 2018

Morning: The empty light kicks on as we turn up Tule Creek Road. I’ve managed to run my tank dry. “I’ll fill up on the way home,” I tell myself.

Afternoon: We’re in a circle outside, reviewing strategies for connecting our community and the national forest. Behind us, the pyrocumulus clouds erupt again from behind the mountains in the afternoon heat. He comes out of the house and crouches beside her, whispering some news. “The power’s out. No idea when it’ll be back. Sounds like the main lines from the Carr Powerhouse went down.” We take a break, intending to regroup for an art project portraying our organization’s vision. But everyone immediately gets on their phones, searching for news. New evacuations in effect. Road closures. People are worried about family who live in Redding and Lewiston. Now is not the time to decoupage. We send everyone home. There’s an hour and a half wait at the gas station, but at least they have a generator to keep it pumping.

Evening: We’re effectively cut off from the airport. There are ways to get around, but they’d take hours. After three hours on hold with United you’ve convinced them to let you pick up your flight from the connection you’d already been scheduled to make in San Francisco. She will take you to the Bay; logistically, this really couldn’t be easier. Take Highway 101, away from this fire, whose full scope we don’t yet know, but have marveled at from afar. You call me at 10:30 p.m. “We see flames to the east of 101.” These first-flames of the Ranch Fire will grow into the Mendocino Complex and grow, and grow, eating up that same front-country eco-type until it has become the largest wildfire in California history.

July 28, 2018

My Outlook calendar entry reads: “Kayaking at Whiskeytown?” A ghost of not-to-be summer plans penciled in weeks ago. “That’s the last one we have in stock. If you want a generator today, you better get that one.” So, I perch on the box, protecting it, while you get an orange flatbed cart. With kayaking solidly off the agenda, we opted to drive three hours west on your birthday to buy the last generator off the shelf at Costco. “What about the people who don’t have $500 in their bank account for a generator?” Confronted by my own privilege, I feel both grateful and guilty, and resolve to help at the shelter as a way to contribute.

July 30, 2018

From a conversation in a community group on Facebook:

  • “Anybody else feel tired since #carrfire started? I’m feeling worn-out, stressed, anxious 24/7. I’m staying hydrated and eating right, but decent sleep is really hard to find. Take care everyone.”
  • “Yes, all the prepping, all the watching of TV, internet news, all the worrying about evacuation, exhausting. Last night I slept like a rock I was so tired … good to be with your people if you can, to get some support so you don’t feel all alone.”
  • “What a roller coaster of emotions! We got the advisory evacuation notice, and my kid was so scared he threw up.”
  • “Yes!!! I’m so sick of looking for/at updates… My mind won’t stop. Glad I’m not the only one.”
  • “We don’t all know each other, but we are a community. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and emotions! It really does help knowing I’m not alone in this. I appreciate you all!”
July 31, 2018

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beeeeeeep. It’s the battery backup, again. Fifth time? Maybe seventh? I’ve lost track of how many times the power has gone out this week. I’ve got 15 minutes to go out to the back patio and get the generator running before the backup dies and we lose power to the internet antenna. In other circumstances, I might welcome being cut off from power. It’s a nice change of pace to read from a real book by candle-light on occasion, but being unable to follow the latest fire news feels unacceptable.

August 1, 2018

Some reasons the power might go out during a fire:

  • A fire-vortex turning as fast as an F-3 tornado tears high voltage steel towers out of the ground leaving them in a twisted pile on the ground.
  • Operators have to be evacuated from the dam where power is being generated. When the system trips off, there isn’t anyone there to diagnose the issue and turn it back on.
  • A retardant drop hits the lines. The grid has to be turned off while the lines are cleaned, by hand.

Both the local Trinity Public Utilities District and Pacific Gas and Electric employees have worked tirelessly throughout the fire to restore power. We’re lucky to have had power as much as we have during this whole ordeal.

August 4, 2018

Classroom 21 is filled with cats in plastic carriers. A woman sits in a wheelchair parked in the sun outside a room that has been turned into a make-shift dorm. A man smokes cigarettes, one after another for an hour, eyes turned to the east where he’s come from, where the fire is advancing toward Trinity County. We’re in the cafeteria where they’ve set up a big screen TV to stream news coverage for evacuees. Board games are stacked in a pile. I get the router we’ve brought from home out of the car. The system isn’t set up to deal with power outages like we’ve been having. Every time we lose power there are things that have to be brought back online manually. So we drive over the hill, bringing backup routers and cables, and get the TV stream online again.

August 5, 2018

I put the black file box in the car again. Dog food, people snacks, backpacks. We’ve got our pets, papers and pills. You can really perfect a routine like this if you do it every time you leave the house. The dogs have never been so disappointed: so many car-rides that haven’t turned into drives to our favorite walking spot. I’ve never been so prepared.

September 23, 2018

A red pop-up tent shelters pictures and messages about lost and found animals. It’s been two months. There are still pets being reunited with owners.

So many of us were glued to our computers—searching Facebook pages for the latest pictures or stories from the fire lines while the fire was active. Now, those same platforms are helping people connect about recovery. If resilience is partly a measure of connectedness, then technology, especially social network sites, help make those connections visible and build new ones for those seeking help, or seeking to help, their neighbors.

October 23, 2018

Three months ago the Carr Fire started. It was not the kind of fire we want. Ignited unintentionally by a mechanical failure on one of the hottest days on record. It burned along a winding state highway that serves as the critical connection between rural communities and the I-5 corridor. Mass evacuations had to be ordered as the fire burned through outlying areas and into the Redding city limits. The community of Keswick, home to over 450 people, burned almost entirely: only two homes remain standing there today. Fire personnel and civilians were killed. Over 1,000 homes were lost. Nearly all of Whiskeytown National Recreation Area burned. We have a lot of work to do.

Author‘s Note: My professional career is devoted to helping communities live with wildfire. I grew up in Trinity County and have experienced numerous wildfires, so the Carr Fire wasn’t my “first”, but it was a powerful one. The journey toward fire resilience isn’t, and will never be, a tidy or easy path. Our relationships with fire, our places and each other need attention. We have to act to improve these relationships. Even as we act, we will experience loss: fires with outcomes we don’t want. I hope the human experience of a fire with outcomes we don’t want will move us toward more action, rather than despair. 

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2 thoughts on “Views of the Carr Fire: Journal Entries from Trinity County, California”

  1. Gloria Erickson says:

    VERY, VERY POWERFUL. Again, my heart goes out to you and all the communities who experienced these horrific fires. The next steps, as we’re learning, will be equally, if not more challenging. Hang in there. I, too, hope that the ” human experience of a fire with outcomes we don’t want” will spur us more to action. I know it keeps me going to continue to work with my community. Thanks for sharing your experience, Michelle.

  2. Lenya Quinn-Davidson says:

    Beautiful writing, Michelle. I too felt the power of the Carr Fire, even though I was here on the Coast, in the comfort of the summer fog. For those of us who grew up (or still live) in Trinity County, those are our landscapes: our comfort zones, the homes of our friends and family. Thanks for putting words to the deep worry and grief that so many felt. I love this blog! xoxo

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