Saturday, July 27, 2019

From Fountain to Carr

July 25, 2018. Will you forget it? I certainly won’t. I saw the glow as I drove down a boulevard in my hometown of Redding, California. It was too bright. Too close. There was too much smoke. But still far enough away. Look at how far it has to come, I thought. I took a picture. It will never get this far. Fire doesn’t come into town. I understood fire season.

I’d seen that glow before. August 20, 1992. I was soon to be 13, a short nineteen days later. My family lived on an eighty-eight acre cattle and apple ranch in Round Mountain, California. Two sets of grandparents, an aunt, uncle and cousins lived down the road. Round Mountain had been the home of my father’s childhood. It was the home of my childhood. Long summer days exploring in the woods, making forts and swimming in creeks and ponds. Crisp fall days chasing cattle and picking apples. People drove for hours up to the Terry Mill Ranch for the most delicious apples they’d ever eaten. Ultimately it was the apples and cattle that saved our home. You see our home was nestled next to green irrigated pastures for grazing cattle and growing apple trees. But on August 20th I wasn’t home in Round Mountain, I was in Redding standing on Ridge Dr (the same Ridge Dr that lost 7 houses in the Carr Fire) watching the orange glow from the Fountain Fire grow bigger. Wondering if it had reached my beloved Terry Mill Ranch.

It did. The Fountain Fire, like all great wildfires of its kind, destroyed everything in its path, at one point consuming 80 acres a minute. Everything was gone...except for what wasn’t. Pocking the land with random houses left perfectly intact. The drive home after evacuations were lifted was eerie. The land was black. All that was left were sticks poking out of the ground where hundred year old trees once stood. We called it “The Moon”. Houses were grey squares of ash. I had never seen such destruction in person before. I was young but I will never forget it. As we neared our home it looked impossible that any houses could have survived. We had already seen that my grandparents home was just a pile of ash.  As we rounded the last bend in the road before our home, there my childhood home miraculously stood. But the wilderness of my youth was gone; now black and barren.  My father fell to his knees and cried.

After moving away from Round Mountain many years later, my parents dodged fire twice more.  So when my dad called and woke me up at 6:30 am on Thursday, July 26, 2018 and asked if I needed help packing, he knew what it would take. He piled cardboard boxes and black bags into his truck and he and my step-mom came to help me pack my house. Soon after my mother also joined in packing. My husband had left for work already, but as we realized the fire was coming closer he made his way back home to help. The evacuation text came, sending me into panic mode. And then like some kind of terrible joke, we received notice that the evacuation notice for our neighborhood was a mistake. So we sat. Waiting. Boxes packed all around us.  Texts from my frightened children who were at a day camp starting coming in. I told them everything was going to be ok. But I’m not sure I believed my own words. Q left to fill up both our cars with fuel so we could be prepared for whatever came next. I went outside to find neighbors in the street, some loading cars and some still trying to figure out what was going on. I texted a group of friends who lived close by, “I’m just sitting here. Waiting to be told to leave. I started a load of laundry, because what else is there to do.”  I decided I didn’t want a middle of the night wake up call to evacuate, so after checking on a friend’s home nearby who was out of town on vacation, we loaded up our most precious belongings and took the cat and left the home Q had designed and we had built 11 years prior.

The following 5 days were surreal. Thank goodness for cell phones. Texting and social media became my connection to the people and land that I love. My eyes were glued to my phone as we checked on our family and friends and tried to make sense of all that was happening. It made me wonder how my parents endured the days of the Fountain Fire so many years ago before cell phones were a thing.

While half the city was evacuated with deserted house and streets, literally under fire, the other half lay in a thick blanket of smoke. Huddled on the far side of town, we gathered with family and friends, all of us in our own haze of thought. What in the world was going on? Is this real? Is this really happening? But we were together and that made all the difference.

Our law enforcement family members gave us continual reports on our home and the homes of our friends. Some reports brought joy and some brought deep sadness as we found out minute by minute which homes were standing and which were reduced to ashes. They chased looters out of our neighborhood and helped assist in evacuating residents and road closures.

We were the lucky ones. We had a comfortable house to stay in during evacuation and our house was spared from fire.  But we weren’t safe from the sadness of it all.  While our home stood, 1000 other homes burned to the ground. While we were sitting and sleeping comfortable, eight people died in the fire, two of which were children.  Thousands of people were housed in temporary shelters. Our beloved Whiskeytown Lake & Park and so many other sacred places were torched. The nightmare of it all even haunted us in our sleep.

I’m not sure how to explain how the next several days and even months went. They feel like a blur. But for most of you reading, I probably don’t have to explain lived it too.  Even though the fires were still a blaze, life had to resume.  People went back to work, school started and the smothering smoke didn’t even seem to bother us anymore. More fires came. The Delta, Hirz and Hat fires wreaked havoc on what little of Shasta County that wasn’t already on fire. Central and Southern California were on fire too. There was no where in California to go that wasn’t under a layer of smoke.

Just when we started to see blue sky and breathe easy again, the Camp Fire reared it’s ugly head and took our neighboring town hostage, making the Carr fire look like a warm up. Like a scab ripped off a wound too soon, the hearts of Redding bled for our neighbors. Many of us went to their aid. The nightmares returned and no one felt safe.

Along with the with devastation came great love and generosity. As Mr. Roger’s mom told him, “look for the helpers” we saw helpers everywhere. The outpouring of love and support from our community was unprecedented. There are not enough words to express how Redding feels about first responders, volunteers and generous community members. Not unlike how united our country was after 9/11/2001, our community became strong,  #shastastrong #rebuildredding .  I have always loved living in Redding. Northern California is the only place I’ve ever wanted to live. But the days, weeks and months during and after 2018 fire season made me proud to live among the best of humanity. Once someone told me that we live in “God’s Country” because of its natural beauty. Now, I refer to it as God’s Country because the hearts of those who live here have been changed, strengthened and united. While I miss the grandeur and majesty that once was our land, I’ll take the beauty of a broken heart and mended spirit any day. With that the rebuilding can begin. It already has.

Today, July 27, 2019, three hundred and sixty six days -- one year and one day -- after we evacuated our home for threat of fire, I woke up to the smell of smoke. A quick look out the window at the gray fog like sky reaffirmed to me that the 2019 fire season had already begun.

Whitney Lowry


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