REDDING, Calif. — Only a handful of homes remain in the small northern California community of Keswick.
The air chokes with the smell of smoke and chemicals, smoldering what’s left of people’s lives. The so-called Carr Fire roared through Shasta County, so thoroughly eating up homes, that it’s difficult to tell how many once stood in the ruins.
Somewhere in the ash was the home of Shyla and Jason Campbell.
Jason, a firefighter, was six hours away from his home and family, battling a wildfire near Yosemite Valley, when the Carr Fire moved in.
Shyla, 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 on Friday, he found their home of five years was gone, along with an RV and a boat.
Officials say at least 500 structures were destroyed by the Carr 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 as she sheltered in 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.”
About 37,000 people remained under evacuation orders as the wreckage smoldered. Nearly 5,000 more homes were being threatened by the 75-square-mile (194-square-kilometer) blaze, which was just 5 percent contained.
Thousands of people scrambled to escape amid flying embers before walls of flames descended from forested hills onto their neighborhoods Thursday. At least two flaming tornados toppled trees, shook firefighting equipment and busted truck windows, taking “down everything in its path,” said Scott McLean, a spokesman for Cal Fire, the state agency responsible for fighting wildfires.
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. Two firefighters were killed: Redding fire inspector Jeremy Stoke and a bulldozer operator whose name wasn’t immediately released. He was the second bulldozer operator to die in a California blaze in less than two weeks.
Elsewhere in California, large fires continued to burn outside Yosemite National Park and in the San Jacinto Mountains east of Los Angeles near Palm Springs. Nationally, 89 active large fires have consumed nearly 930,000 acres in 14 states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. So far this year, nearly 37,000 wildfires have burned more than 4.25 million acres.
Residents who gathered belongings in haste described a chaotic and congested getaway as sparks flew and fire leaped across the wide Sacramento River, torching 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 home in a few days.
When they returned Friday, virtually nothing was left but fine particles of ash. It was so hot, they couldn’t walk through it 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 overhead.
Liz Williams loaded up two kids in her car and then found herself locked in bumper-to-bumper traffic with neighbors trying to flee from Lake Redding Estates.
She eventually jumped the curb onto a 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.”
Fire officials warned that the blaze would probably burn deeper into urban areas before there was any hope of containing it. So far, the Carr Fire has either changed direction or was stopped before it burning into Redding’s city center.
Gill reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Noah Berger in Redding; Olga Rodriguez and Janie Har in San Francisco; Don Thompson in Sacramento; Amanda Lee Myers, Brian Melley and John Antczak in Los Angeles; and Alina Hartounian in Phoenix also contributed to this report.