SHASTA COUNTY (CNN) – It happens countless times on roads across America: a vehicle gets a flat tire, usually just a temporary inconvenience.
But on one road near Redding, California, when a tire failed last month on a trailer and its rim scraped the asphalt, the result proved to be catastrophic for an entire region.
The sparks that shot out July 23 from that minor incident, California fire officials said, ignited what is now the sixth-most destructive wildfire in state history.
The Carr Fire blazed a fiery path along Highway 299, lighting up mile after mile of dry brush as it crept up on residential areas.
The blazed turned everything it touched into ash, mangled metal and black embers, and is still burning nearly two weeks later. It’s killed six people, scorched nearly 134,000 acres — an area larger than Denver — and created its own weather system.
It caught residents by surprise
Ed Bledsoe lost his wife and their two great-grandchildren in the fire, all within 15 minutes.
While he was out, his wife, Melody Bledsoe, 70, called and told him the fire was getting closer to their home. She begged him to come get her and their great-grandchildren: Emily Roberts, 4, and James Roberts, 5.
James took the phone and pleaded with his great-grandfather to hurry up and save them.
“He just kept saying, ‘Grandpa, Come get me … come on, Grandpa,’ ” Ed Bledsoe said.
He dropped everything and rushed home. But the roads were congested and the heat and flames so intense, the area near his house was cordoned off. His wife and the two children were among the six people killed in the Carr Fire.
“I tried to call them back and it just went to nothing,” Bledsoe said as he wept. “Poor babies and my wife.”
The winds caused a tornado of fire
The day Bledsoe’s family died, the winds were so strong in Redding, they uprooted trees, ripped off roofs and downed power lines. Experts described it as a “firenado,” when a fire’s intense heat causes the air to heat up and rise rapidly. That, combined with strong winds, creates a vortex similar to a dust devil that pulls fires in different directions.
Redding resident Dominic Galvin said he and his wife did not think the fire would get that big so fast, and scrambled to get out at the last minute.
“When we saw the fire on the ridge … once we saw it there we knew it was coming, but it was too late then,” he said.
His wife, Sylvia Castaneda, broke down in tears as she recounted their loss.
Firefighters suffered losses, too
Firefighter David Spliethof was doing his job as a spotter pilot, flying over the fiery chaos to assess damage and flag trouble. As he flew over his neighborhood this week, he realized his home had burned to ashes, too.
He took a picture of the charred debris where his house once stood and continued fighting the blaze, at times working 24-hour shifts with some of the more than 4,300 people fighting the Carr Fire.
“I don’t feel that I did anything special,” he said of continuing to work despite losing his home. “Once I saw my house gone … there’s going to be plenty of time to go back through the remains and see what we can salvage.”
Other firefighters lost their lives while trying to save others.
Of the six people killed in the Carr Fire, two were firefighters: Jeremy Stoke, who was helping evacuate people, and an unidentified bulldozer operator killed while fighting the flames.
To show their appreciation to firefighters and emergency personnel, Northern California communities are offering them food, water, even free haircuts. Some have posted handwritten signs all over the city. “Best first responders ever! Our heroes,” one sign read.
“We wanted to show our gratitude for fighting to save our city,” said Redding resident Nichole Grubbs-Miller, who posted some of the signs.