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2018 Year-In-Review: Northern California's Year Of Fire

PARADISE (CBS SF) – The devastation is mind numbing -- street after street of burned out homes, lives forever disrupted, dreams turned to piles of ash.

There are many things 2018 will be remembered for but in Northern California an unpredicted year of wildfires will be seared in the minds of most.

Out-going Governor Jerry Brown may have summed it up best. In a world of global warming and climate challenges, Mother Nature's fiery anger will become more pronounced.

"I don't have a crystal ball here but I would not be surprised if there were more fires," Brown said. "It's drier, the soil is drying, the vegetation is drying that makes for perfect kindling. And then these winds events, wind storms and tornado type behavior -- some of this is unprecedented. We're learning as we go. We're in new normal...I would suspect there are more fires to come."

California's Year Fire Special Section

In August, the Carr Fire ripped through Redding. It claimed eight lives, destroyed more than 1,000 homes and charred nearly 360 square miles in and around Redding, making it the seventh largest in California history.

A frightening new term entered the vocabulary of many Northern Californians – firenado.

A University of Nevada researcher studied the devastated Redding neighborhoods and determined a massive column of fire had ripped through, destroying everything in its path.

The catastrophic fire-generated vortex was created by the massive stream of rising and spinning smoke, ash and fire on July 26, 2018 between 7:30 p.m and 8 p.m.

The firenado topped out at 17,000 feet above the Earth's surface as it scorched through a widespread area of Redding, devastating everything in its path. It was related to four deaths, a number of injuries and the destruction of many homes.

The vortex -- an infrequently observed atmospheric phenomena -- was spinning with the power of a Class Three tornado.

Then there was the Mendocino Complex Fire, composed of two wildfires, that erupted near Lakeport in Mendocino County.

By the time it was contained by thousands of firefighters, the blaze had consumed 720 square miles of brush and timber north of San Francisco, destroyed 157 homes and killed a firefighter. It was the largest wildfire in California history.

In November, Mother Nature's fury was released again. More than 50,000 people in Paradise and two neighboring communities were forced to flee a wind-driven fire that started Nov. 8, killing at least 85 people, destroying about 14,000 homes and blackening 240 square miles.

The Camp Fire was the state's most destructive wildfire in history.

A plume of smoke from the fire choked Bay Area skies for more than a week with some of the unhealthiest air on earth. Residents were told to stay shuddered indoors and if they did go outside to wear surgical masks.

The human toll was nearly unspeakable. Lives and dreams were lost forever in the path of the walls of fire.

As he stood among the debris of what was once his Redding home, Josh Lister was having a hard time processing what his eyes were seeing.

Piles of ash, melted metal and charred brick was also that remained of his once idyllic Redding neighborhood. The level of the Carr Fire's ferocity was nearly beyond his comprehension.

"It looked like an atomic bomb went off," he said.

Before heading to what remained of their Paradise home, Joyce McLean, 73, and her husband, Jerry McLean, stopped at a store to buy paper towels and plastic bags.

"We didn't own expensive things, but we had a lot of memory things," she said, recalling Christmas ornaments made by her son when he was a child and mementos from her Canadian husband's great-grandmother. "If I can find a little piece of his family or just a little piece of my son, I would be happy."

McLean said she has seen photos on social media of her destroyed home and knows one of the only things that survived was an American flag flying on a pole.

"We lost everything but the clothes on our backs," she said about their dash for safety.

On Gregory Lane in Paradise, the recovery effort of victims' remains turned into a heartwarming rescue.

Vicky Vincent with the Shasta County Coroner's Office found an exhausted, soot-covered black and white cat among the ashes.

"I don't usually get to recovery anything that's alive. It's nice to be able to save something," said Vincent.

As the year drew to a close, one of the state's largest utilities faced an uncertain future in the wake of the fires.

In a brief from the Office of the California Attorney General it was revealed that PG&E could face criminal charges as serious as manslaughter or murder in the wake of the deadly Camp Fire.

If a jury finds PG&E guilty of criminal negligence or recklessness, the utility could face criminal charges that include:

  • Failing to clear vegetation from a power line or pole;
  • Starting a wildfire;
  • Involuntary manslaughter, or
  • Implied-malice murder.
  • The last three are felonies. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Fogg wrote:

    "If PG&E caused any of the fires, the investigation would have to extend into PG&E's operations, maintenance, and safety practices to determine whether criminal statutes were violated."

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