By Joseph Serna, Phil Willon, John Myers and Alejandra Reyes-Velarde
Los Angeles Times
REDDING, Calif. A destructive wildfire in far Northern California nearly doubled in size overnight, killing at least two people _ including a city firefighter _ and burning numerous homes in Redding as residents ran for their lives and firefighters found it impossible to battle the wall of flames.
The Carr fire has destroyed 65 homes and damaged 55 others, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Friday. Those numbers are expected to rise.
The blaze, driven east by 30 mph winds, hopscotched into subdivisions Thursday night and Friday morning. Officials said hundreds of homes were threatened as winds pushed the fire into the community.
It was a chaotic scene across Redding, a city of 90,000 people about 100 miles from the Oregon border, as towering flames whipped along the horizon and evacuation orders expanded by the hour in the middle of the night.
Andrew Moon was playing the drums with his church’s music group _ the last song in the set _ when their director interrupted about 8 p.m. Thursday.
“She said, ‘Hey guys, you need to stop because we looked outside and it does not look good,’ ” said the 18-year-old incoming UCLA student. “The entire sky was orange and black. Everything was really dark and smoky.”
Moon’s church group was practicing for a benefit concert scheduled to take place Friday that was moved indoors because of the poor air enveloping Redding. But with most churchgoers fleeing the area in anticipation of worsening fire conditions, the concert probably will not happen, he said.
Just a few miles away, Moon’s father began loading his car with valuables that the family had packed earlier. Flames were visible from their home, and on Friday morning, Moon and his family didn’t know whether their home had made it through the night.
Moon, who splits his time living in his mother’s and father’s homes, took shelter 15 minutes south in Red Bluff with his mother and brother, while his father drove farther south to Chico.
“We evacuated there pretty quickly,” he said. “My mother lives farther away, and we received word about an hour ago that the subdivision was OK for the time being, but that the fire is moving quickly and unpredictably.”
Both homes are south of the fire, so on Thursday, family members didn’t expect they would need to flee. Moon is relatively used to fires erupting each year during Redding’s dry, hot weather.
“We get fires out here all the time,” he said. “We never think it’s going to be so close. In a way, we thought we were going to be OK, but we had packed our stuff that morning just in case.”
Moon’s phone has been buzzing with texts from his friends: Traffic is bumper to bumper, they tell him, so much that it took some an hour to drive a mile.
“It’s chaos out there,” he said. “People could see flames from their houses.”
About 9 a.m., a friend called Moon’s father to say the family home was still standing.
Rick Plummer, director of marketing for Dignity Health’s Mercy Medical Center in Redding, hasn’t been home since he was forced to leave in the middle of the night Thursday.
Plummer left the Carr fire command post about 11 p.m. and arrived home to find a wall of flames a half-mile away and closing in. He was told to pack up and leave and spent the night on an air mattress in his office, he said. It was the first time he’s experienced an evacuation order.
“You hear about it and people that have gone through it, but until you’ve gone through it yourself, I don’t think you can 100 percent appreciate walking through your home and deciding what to take and what not to take,” Plummer said, his voice cracking with emotion. “I started packing my jeep up with things I can’t replace.”
Plummer said he watched doctors, nurses and hospital administrators work through the night even as they got word their own homes had burned.
Residents had little warning before the flames moved in. Officials said some civilians and firefighters were injured.
“This fire is extremely dangerous and moving with no regard for what’s in its path,” said Cal Fire incident Cmdr. Bret Gouvea.
The blaze had grown to 44,450 acres and was 3 percent contained Friday morning, Cal Fire said.
Although the fire has been burning since Monday, it didn’t begin wreaking havoc until Wednesday night, when winds steered it down to the edge of Whiskeytown Lake. A second night of dry, powerful winds pushed flames over the Sacramento River into western Redding and north toward the city of Shasta Lake.
Among those caught in the path of the flames were three Marin County firefighters assigned to rescue residents and protect homes, said Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber.
The three men had been working since 1 a.m. Thursday when, about 8 p.m. that evening, a gust of wind breathed life into flames crawling through a patch of Pinyon Pines and shoved them toward the neighborhood. The firefighters were forced to take refuge in their engine, Weber said.
The firefighters _ a 20-year veteran and company officer and two seasonal firefighters with four years and three months experience, respectively _ suffered minor to moderate burns to their hands, face, ears and nose, Weber said. The youngest of the group, who is 26, was taken to University of California, Davis Medical Center’s burn center Friday morning for additional treatment.
“The fire is making significant runs. This is year after year of historical weather and fuel conditions and all of California is ripe for fire behavior,” he said. “All the fire agencies are tired throughout the state.”
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While firefighters spent Friday trying to take advantage of a dip in the winds, Mercy Medical Center has spent the last day preparing to evacuate, Plummer said. Five babies in the neonatal intensive care unit were taken to hospitals in Davis and Sacramento as a precaution, and strike teams of ambulances are on standby.
As of Friday morning, the hospital was still open and treating patients. Several civilians and firefighters were treated for burns there Thursday night, Plummer said.
A Redding television station, KRCR, cut off its live coverage so anchors and other employees could evacuate the studio. Shasta Dam was closed to the public Friday as a precaution.
“The fire is extremely active tonight,” Cal Fire Capt. John Clingingsmith Jr. said Thursday.
Residents also reported sporadic power outages, including at the Redding Record Searchlight newspaper, as well as jammed roads as people streamed out of the fire zone.
“It’s crazy. It’s out of control,” California Highway Patrol Sgt. Tim Hinkson said in a Facebook video as he evacuated residents Thursday.
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A private bulldozer operator, who was not named, was killed late Thursday as the fire grew and roared toward Redding. It was the second firefighting death in California in recent weeks. Braden Varney, a bulldozer operator with Cal Fire, died fighting the Ferguson fire near Yosemite.
On Friday, authorities announced another firefighter was killed battling the Redding blaze.
“As we mourn the loss, we also battle a fire that is moving extremely quickly and erratically into western Redding,” Gouvea said, adding that other firefighters and civilians have been injured.
The devastation in Redding extends a grim period of fires in California. Last fall, Northern California’s wine country was hit by the most destructive fires on record, destroying thousands of homes and killing dozens of residents. In December, the Thomas fire tore through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, becoming the largest single fire in state history.
Officials said there was little firefighters could do as the Carr fire swept into Redding amid triple-digit temperatures and strong winds.
“Structures are burning,” Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean told The Sacramento Bee late Thursday. “The fire is moving so fast that law enforcement is doing evacuations as fast as we can.”
As of Friday, the Carr fire was the most destructive of several major blazes burning around the state. In Riverside County, the Cranston fire _ easily spotted by the billowy plumes of smoke expanding into the sky _ had burned 11,500 acres and was 3 percent contained Friday morning. At least five homes have been lost in that fire.
Near Yosemite, the Ferguson fire continues to burn in wilderness areas. That blaze has scorched 45,911 acres and was 29 percent contained Friday.
(Times staff writers Alene Tchekmedyian and Laura J. Nelson in Los Angeles contributed to this report. Willon and Myers reported from Redding, Serna from Los Angeles.)