REDDING, Calif.— In the small northern California community of Keswick, only a handful of homes remain.
The air is thick with the smell of smoke and chemicals. The rubble of people’s lives still smoldered a day after the so-called Carr Fire moved through Shasta County like a freight train.
The flames so thoroughly ate up homes that it’s difficult to tell how many once stood above the pile of ash and smoking rubble that remains.
Somewhere in there was the home of Shyla and Jason Campbell.
Jason Campbell, a firefighter, was six hours away battling a wildfire burning near Yosemite Valley when the Carr Fire moved in on his home and family.
Shyla Campbell, 32, said it was nearly 2 a.m. Thursday when she got an official alert to evacuate.
“It’s huge flames, it’s coming up the hill, and everyone’s out and we’re watching it, then it goes down, and everyone’s like, ‘Oh it’s going out,’ ” she said. “And I’m like, ‘No, it’s going down the mountain and it’s going to come back up the next ridge.’ ”
She was right.
The family spent the night at a hotel. When Jason Campbell returned from the blaze he was fighting on Friday, he found his own home had gone up in flames, along with an RV and a boat.
The Campbells’ home of five years is among at least 500 structures that officials say were destroyed by the fire, which also swept through the historic Gold Rush town of Shasta and hit homes in Redding, a city of 92,000 about 100 miles south of the Oregon border.
“It’s tough,” Shyla Campbell said Friday from the city of Shasta Lake. “I just have to figure out where we’re going to stay. We’re just trying to stay away from the fire.”
So are about 37,000 people who remain under evacuation orders Friday. Nearly 5,000 homes in the area were being threatened by the 75-square-mile (194-square-kilometer) blaze, which is just 5 percent contained.
Thousands of people scrambled to escape before the walls of flames descended from forested hills onto their neighborhoods Thursday.
Residents who gathered their belongings in haste described a chaotic and congested getaway as the embers blew up to a mile ahead of flames and the fire leaped across the wide Sacramento River and torched subdivisions in Redding.
Redding police chief Roger Moore was among those who lost their homes, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Greg and Terri Hill evacuated their Redding home of 18 years Thursday night with little more than their medications, photo albums, clothes and firearms, assuming they’d be back in a few days.
But when they returned Friday, virtually nothing was left of their home but fine particles of ash.
The remains were smoldering so hot, they couldn’t get too close to see if anything survived.
“It’s pretty emotional,” Terri Hill said. “I know it’s just stuff. A lot of memories. But we’ll make new memories and get new stuff. Everybody’s safe.”
The Hills fled before they were told to, knowing danger was afoot when the power went out and helicopters suddenly began flying low over their home.
Liz Williams loaded up two kids in her car and then found herself locked in bumper-to-bumper traffic with neighbors trying to retreat from Lake Redding Estates.
She eventually jumped the curb onto the sidewalk and “booked it.”
“I’ve never experienced something so terrifying in my life,” she said. “I didn’t know if the fire was just going to jump out behind a bush and grab me and suck me in.”
The flames moved so fast that firefighters working in oven-like temperatures and bone-dry conditions had to drop efforts to battle the blaze at one point to help people escape.
The fire, which created at least two flaming tornados that toppled trees, shook firefighting equipment and busted truck windows, took “down everything in its path,” said Scott McLean, a spokesman for Cal Fire, the state agency responsible for fighting wildfires.
Two firefighters were killed in the blaze, Redding fire inspector Jeremy Stoke and a bulldozer operator whose name wasn’t immediately released. He was the second bulldozer operator killed in a California blaze in less than two weeks.
Fire officials warned that the blaze would probably burn deeper into urban areas before there was any hope of containing it, though it either changed direction or was stopped before it could burn into the core of the city.
Elsewhere in the state, large fires continued to burn outside Yosemite National Park and in the San Jacinto Mountains east of Los Angeles near Palm Springs.