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Science & Technology

California Carr Fire Leaves Many Unsure About Their Future

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Slightly milder weather has slowed the Carr Fire in Northern California as it moves past the city of Redding and into rural areas to the north and west. Nearly 40,000 people were forced to evacuate. Some are now being allowed back into their neighborhoods finding their homes gone. Liam Moriarty of Jefferson Public Radio is in Redding and has been talking to people about their panicked, last-minute escapes.

LIAM MORIARTY, BYLINE: Amber Bey stands across the street from her home in Redding. The house is intact, but she hasn't been inside in days.

AMBER BEY: I'm still currently under mandatory evacuation.

MORIARTY: Bey says last Thursday night, she knew there was a wildfire at the nearby Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, but says that's not uncommon. That evening at home, she kept hearing sirens.

BEY: I wasn't too concerned right at first, but then the sirens never stopped.

MORIARTY: She stepped outside to see what was going on.

BEY: People were on their rooftops spraying with hoses. And as I looked to the west, I could actually see what I know now was the fire tornado.

MORIARTY: Stoked by high temperatures, strong winds and tinder-dry fuels, the fire had become a raging whirlwind, creating its own powerful updraft. The electricity had gone out, so she used her phone for a flashlight as she threw some photos, important documents and her dog into her car and fled. Brian Brown and Michelle Privett had heeded warnings to be ready to evacuate. Still, they left their house in the River Ridge neighborhood Thursday morning not too concerned. But that evening, the fire suddenly jumped the Sacramento River, and the power went out in parts of town. They rushed back to their home to find a scene of chaos.

BRIAN BROWN: My next-door neighbor was on his motorcycle. He had gotten his kids and everything out earlier - you know, basically screaming at me, get out, get out.

MORIARTY: Without power, their garage door wouldn't open, so Brown climbed through a window. They quickly grabbed a computer and some other valuables and ran out the front door.

BROWN: A police officer pulls down there. He then yells at us get out now. And the last thing when we were getting out of there - after shutting the door, there's three helicopters right above our house ready to drop water. And we were out of there.

MORIARTY: The next morning, they returned to their street.

BROWN: We got around the road closures, and we got to go up there and see it. And then it was - it's gone.

MORIARTY: Now the couple is living in a hotel while they sort things out and survey the landscape of their new life. Brown says they're not looking forward to the next step.

BROWN: They want you - us to - hey, you're going to have to clean your lot and scoop it all up and - you know, and I know that's going to be real hard because there's all those memories and things that - you know, it's gone.

MORIARTY: They have plenty of company. As officials assess the damage, the toll of destroyed homes has climbed to over 1,000, and they're still counting. For NPR News, I'm Liam Moriarty in Redding, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF IF THESE TREES COULD TALK'S "LEFT TO RUST AND ROT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.