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A Fire Tornado Hit Their Neighborhood. This Is All That’s Left.

The devastating Carr Fire continues to burn through parts of Northern California. The New York Times visited the town of Redding, where the high winds and flames left some areas barely recognizable.

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Jose A. Del Real
, New York Times

The devastating Carr Fire continues to burn through parts of Northern California. The New York Times visited the town of Redding, where the high winds and flames left some areas barely recognizable.

The Carr Fire has scorched Northern California with singular intensity since it broke out on July 23, displacing thousands of people in Shasta County and decimating parts of the bucolic town of Redding.

The fire took a particularly nightmarish turn when what locals are calling a fire tornado, documented in video footage and first-person accounts, tore through neighborhoods in the town of Redding, which has a population of more than 90,000.

Powerful winds pulled trees out of the ground, flung cars and engulfed nearby buildings in flames. All that was left were petrified trees and hollowed out homes. In some areas, the heat and wind grew so intense that there is no more soil on the ground, just charred bedrock. The winds, according to the National Weather Service, reached speeds “in excess of 143 mph.”

The Carr Fire is still burning and it is only 41 percent contained, shifting westward from Redding. Residents are now slowly being allowed to return and assess the damage. Some have lost everything.

The scale of the destruction is hard to comprehend. Nearly 40,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes at the height of the wildfire’s assault on Redding. It has burned more than 142,000 acres of land, destroying 1,073 homes and damaging an additional 190. Six fatalities have been reported, though that number could rise once a complete assessment of the damage can be conducted.

The Lake Keswick Estates area, among the very worst hit in Redding, is barely recognizable. All that is left in some homes are burned out refrigerators, washing machines and bed frames.

Outside many homes, in backyards and driveways, a few trappings of domestic life survived. A complete patio set, a swimming pool, a basketball hoop. Tattered, charred American flags sat stiffly in the former entryways of several homes. The homes themselves were largely gone. The heat from the fire was enough to melt a children’s slide.

Justin Sanchez, who lives in the Lake Keswick Estates area, said that his neighbors had been on edge in the days before the fire. Many packed their belongings and watched weather reports obsessively, he said. But Sanchez didn’t think the fire would reach his house. “None of us would have ever thought it would jump the river and come this way,” he said.

On the day the fire hit the town, he said, nobody could have anticipated its force. “It was this massive tornado headed straight for our neighborhood packed in with shrapnel flying around,” he said. “Within a matter of 10 minutes or so it was right on the edge of my neighborhood.”

The evacuation was chaotic, he said. The bottlenecked traffic exacerbated his family’s panic. At one point, they feared they would not make it out alive.

When Sanchez returned Thursday, one week after the evacuation, his entire home had been reduced to rubble.

In the moments before his family evacuated, Sanchez began pulling photos off the walls and loading them into his dad’s truck. The force of the wind, he said, blew them out of his hands. He jumped in the back of the truck, laying on top of the pictures to keep them from flying away.

Today, that’s all they have left.

“I just knew this thing was going to take our whole neighborhood,” he said. “I’ve never been so scared in my life.”

Sanchez, who has been staying in a motel with his family, including two children, said he’s not sure what comes next. “It’s going to be chaotic. We’re just going to have to work through it,” he said. “We just have to take it day by day.”

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