The 2018 Carr Fire was one of the worst wildfires in California history. By the time it was contained, it had burned 359 square miles, destroyed close to 2,000 buildings, and killed seven people. It also spawned a massive fire tornado—only the second ever recorded. Meteorologists examining the damage afterward estimated that the vortex had generated winds of up to 165 miles per hour. When a blaze like that is coming your way, the only sane thing to do is run for your life. But Gary and Lori Lyon did the opposite, staying to defend their home. Outside contributor Stephanie Joyce has the story on why, in an era of increasingly intense fires, someone would dare to stand and fight an inferno.
Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Science of Survival.
Lori Lyon: I just remember standing in the front yard saying bye to my neighbors across the street. And everybody is leaving, and getting prepared. And we just stayed, and waited. And then there it hit.
Peter Frick-Wright (Host): Like most fires, the Carr fire started small. Really small. On July 23 last year, an RV driving through northern California blew a tire on state highway 299. The couple driving pulled over to the side of the road, but not before a tiny spark from the wheel, riding on its rim, flew off into the dry grasses beyond the shoulder.
It might as well have been a match on gasoline.
Over the next few days, the fire quickly grew to become one of the worst in California history.
By the time it was contained, it had destroyed almost 2000 buildings and killed 7 people. You might remember hearing about the fire on the news because it spawned a massive fire tornado—only the second ever recorded. Meteorologists examining the damage after the fact estimated it had generated winds of up to 165-mile-an-hour.
If there’s any time that it would make sense to run for your life… it’s in the face of an out-of-control wildfire that’s generating tornadoes. But that’s not what Gary and Lori Lyon did as the fire approached their home in the city of Redding. They stayed, and they waited. And then they fought.
Outside contributor Stephanie Joyce has the story on why, in an era of increasingly intense and devastating fires, someone would dare to try and fend off an inferno.
Stephanie Joyce: Facing down a wildfire was never Lori Lyon’s plan. It wasn’t her plan on Monday, when the Carr fire started, 15 miles west of the Lyons’ house. It wasn’t her plan on Thursday afternoon, when the Carr fire made a dramatic run towards the city of Redding. And it still wasn’t her plan at 7 o’clock on Thursday evening, when the fire seemed like it was about to jump the Sacramento River… the last barrier between it and the Lyons’ house in the Lake Redding Estates subdivision.
In fact, at that moment, Lori’s only plan was finding her husband, Gary.
[Suspenseful music begins]
Which is why she was running down the river trail behind their house. Gary had taken off down the trail half an hour earlier, on his bike. He’d wanted to get a better view of the fire… and to see if it was in fact going to jump the river.
Gary Lyon: She was not real happy with that as it, it separated us, and you know, there's this fire coming our way.
Joyce: There isn’t a lot of overlap between Lori and Gary’s accounts of what happened the night of the Carr fire… but on that particular point, they’re in complete agreement.
Lori Lyon: I did not want him to go. I didn’t want him to go because I didn’t want him to leave me, and I was afraid for him to go to the fire.
Joyce: To make things worse, it wasn’t long after Gary left that Lori realized she had no way of getting in touch with him.
Lori Lyon: I [01:24:40] kept calling and calling and he didn't answer me. Ae just didn't have a reception for some reason. And so I started getting afraid because people are driving down our street yelling to leave, leave. It's coming. It's coming our way.
Joyce: The fire was indeed coming their way, as Gary had just learned. It had jumped the river.
When Gary saw that, he turned around and started pedaling back toward their house. In the meantime, Lori had also made the decision to head back—although it took some persuading from a concerned neighbor.
Lori Lyon: She said: Lori, you got to turn around. The fire is right there. It's coming. It's right there. And so I run back to my house and pulled my car out and got Gary's truck. And I start packing everything that I could think of: all of our, you know... enough clothes and all our business paperwork, things from my mom, you know, pictures. And then Gary came back, and he said it jumped the river, so we got to, we got to get prepared. I still didn't know we weren't going to leave at that point.
[Music fades out]
Joyce: Gary had actually started preparing to stay earlier in the day. He’s 68 now, and retired, but for decades, he was a firefighter with CalFire, the state fire agency. He’d been following the Carr fire all week… and at first, it didn’t seem like anything to worry about. He went to a briefing about it the day after the fire started.
Gary Lyon: The team that was had the fire at that time seemed very positive that they were going to be able to get in additional control lines during the day—this is Tuesday—and, you know, get a handle on this fire.
Joyce: Even though things initially seemed under control, Gary kept a close eye on the weather as the week progressed. On Thursday morning, the forecast was calling for a record-breaking 113 degrees, with the potential for a westerly wind, which could blow the fire towards the city.
Gary Lyon: And I actually sent an email out to our neighborhood watch folks and just kind of saying that if the news reports are correct, and where the fire currently is, there is potential for it to come into our neighborhood. That email I had to be very cautious, because I didn't want to panic anybody, but I wanted people start thinking in those terms.
Joyce: The news that a wildfire might hit Redding shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. It’s one of the hottest, driest cities in California, and it’s surrounded by extremely flammable vegetation. But, of course, over the last century, we’ve gotten very good at suppressing wildfires.
Gary Lyon: We're in the middle of a residential area, you know, the fires not going to come bombing through here is kind of the mindset, I think, of most people who live in residential areas.
Joyce: Even so, Gary started preparing, just in case. There are lots of well-documented ways to make your house less likely to burn in a wildfire, starting with defensible space. Gary already had that, so he focused on the house itself.
Gary Lyon: As it got later into the afternoon. I did start stretching out hose lines in strategic places on my property. I laddered the roof of my house. I laddered the roof of my shop.
Joyce: And when you say hose lines, you mean like garden hoses.
Gary Lyon: Yes, that's yeah, unfortunately, that's... that's all we had.
Joyce: Lori saw Gary pulling out the hoses and the ladders, but she chalked it up to her firefighter husband being overly cautious about a fire that was still a dozen miles to the west.
Lori Lyon:: It just seemed like it was so far away. I couldn't believe it would come all the way to our house. So I really hadn't panicked at that point.
Joyce: Lori works as an administrator for the local school district, and it was the last week before summer vacation ended, so she was head down on Thursday, trying to get through her to-do list. It wasn’t until they were in the backyard in the early evening that she realized that the fire really was getting close. So, when Gary took off on his bike, they hadn’t had a chance to talk yet about what they would do if the fire actually came to their neighborhood.
[Cut to news clips documenting the fire]
News Host: The Carr fire taking over Redding, California.
Dispatcher: Okay, if you can get out safely, get out, okay?
News Host: A wall of flames causing emergency evacuations.
[Clips continue, faded, in the background]
Gary Lyon: As I entered the cul-de-sac at the end of my street, the police were there evacuating and telling everybody to get out. I notified the officer that I was a retired fireman, and that I would be staying. I was advised that, you know, don't expect it have somebody come back and rescue because you've made this decision. And I accepted that responsibility.
[News clips come back to foreground]
Man: There are two guys who went down to the river on the river trail.
Man: And I kept telling them to come out because the fire’s coming, but they’re not listening.
[News clip fades out]
Lori Lyon: I was shocked, as I really still thought we were going to leave. That's why I packed up both cars. But he never had any intention of leaving, and I think he thought: Well, if I wanted to leave I would go. You know? But I wasn't going to leave him.
[News fades back in]
Woman: Please do not dilly dally. Please get your items you need and get out. The fire is moving very quickly.
Joyce: When a wildfire is threatening your home, authorities here in the U.S. universally agree that the only reasonable thing to do is evacuate. But Gary, obviously, disagrees.
Gary Lyon: My opinion, if an able-bodied, especially experienced able-bodied person. can stay behind and help protect their home, there is a higher likely that the home will be saved.
Joyce: That idea might seem crazy — that any ordinary person stands a chance of saving their home in the face of a wildfire. But there’s actually a lot of evidence to support Gary’s view.
Most homes don’t burn from contact with the flame front: the fast-moving, high-intensity part of the wildfire. Instead, they burn when embers land in a gutter full of pine needles, or get into an attic vent and start a small fire. With everyone evacuated, and a limited number of fire engines, there’s no one around to put out that small fire... so it becomes a big fire. But if someone is there, they can put out the small fire pretty easily, and prevent the house from burning.
At least, that’s the theory. But of course, if something goes wrong, the consequences can be literally life and death. By the time Gary and Lori made the decision to stay, the Carr fire had already killed one person. But they didn’t know that. So, along with a handful of their neighbors, they got ready to fight.
Gary Lyon: I told Lori that she needed to put long pants on something with long sleeves and boots. I did the same. We were all in summer clothes, you know, shorts and sandals. [00:25:20] So I immediately changed clothes, put boots on, long pants, long sleeve shirt. Found headlamps. Gloves obviously were a good thing to have as well. But that's about as far as I could get myself ready not still being in the fire service, I had no real protective gear.
Joyce: To Lori, who had never been in or even really near a wildfire before, this was all overwhelming. She had no idea what to expect.
Lori Lyon: You know, and then all of a sudden Gary left and he went across the street, and he was in everybody's backyard. Then I called him and I said how come you're not here with me? And he said: You're fine there. You just need to go back and forth, back of the house. And this keep, you know, hosing down the roof. And hosing down embers that could come our way. They hadn't got there yet, but he was kind of telling me what to do and and, you know, give me instruction that way. And was helping all the other people's homes, which is what he does. And that's there, how... those homes are more threatened than ours and he knew I was safe, but I didn't know I was safe.
Joyce: Safe might be a bit of an exaggeration… but a well-prepared and actively defended house can be safer than the alternatives.
In Australia, enormous wildfires are common. And investigators studying past fires there have concluded that most people die when trying to flee at the last minute. They get trapped by downed trees and power lines, and burn up in their cars trying to reach safety. So, since the early 90s, the Australian government’s official policy has been that homeowners should leave early, before the fire gets anywhere near a community, or prepare, stay and defend their homes. As a result, there’s a lot of emphasis on making houses fire-resistant.
That policy is generally considered pretty radical here in the U.S., although there are several communities in California built with defensibility in mind. Gary and Lori’s neighborhood is definitely not one of them. And when the fire finally arrived, Lori was pretty sure she had made a terrible mistake.
[Music fades out, ambient sound of fires begins]
Lori Lyon: When it finally started coming down the cul de sac, it was just really orange and dark. And all of a sudden I could tell when it hit the first house cause the propane tanks just started going off. And the... you can hear the crackling from the fire.
And I mean, just looking down a road it just, you know, up. And when I, with the heat from the fire, I wear contacts, and they just felt like they were going to glue to my eyes. the heat from it was so strong. And the wind. And the sound of the helicopters… It was totally like a war zone at... that was just so scary.
[Sound of a helicopter]
Joyce: Despite being absolutely terrified, Lori followed the instructions Gary had given her: running back and forth, spraying down anything that might catch on fire. Meanwhile, Gary stayed across the street, trying to save his neighbors’ houses. It was heroic… but it was also practical. A burning house generates a lot of heat and embers, so in a dense suburban neighborhood, once one house catches fire, there’s often a domino effect. By saving his neighbors’ houses, Gary would also be saving his own. But in a lot of cases, his neighbors hadn’t exactly made it easy for him.
Gary Lyon: Because, everybody in my house is the same way, has a cedar or redwood fence that borders their property and attaches to the house at some point. And if they catch fire they will just burn right to your house. It’s a fuse.
Joyce: Then, there was the bark mulch — the kind that people love to use for landscaping.
Gary Lyon: The winds were so significant, they were picking that stuff up, they were catching on fire. And then they were flying out in front of the fire a significant distance, landing in dry material and starting new fires. The thing I found kind of funny, even at the time when all this chaos is going on, is the garden hoses were totally designed, and rightfully so, to make it to the strawberry planter box or the apple tree. Some of them were just cut off at the end because they don't need them to water plants. But when you're trying to fight a fire and have the water shoot out, having a... putting your thumb over the end of a garden hose is not the most preferred way.
Joyce: [laughs] So you're actually having to, like, tap the end of the hose with your thumb.
Gary Lyon: In some cases… [laughs] in some cases, that happened.
Joyce: Fires aren’t like tsunamis. They can be raging in one place, and relatively calm in others, depending on the winds and fuels available. As Gary went up and down the street, he was mostly fighting a low-intensity backing fire, burning downhill. And a few small fires started by embers.
But even in those relatively calm conditions, it didn’t take long for things to get out of hand. Down at the end of the street, a small fire at one house blew up before Gary could get to it, and pretty soon, the house next to it was up in flames too.
Suddenly, Gary was very aware of the fact that he was trying to fight a wildfire with garden hoses.
Gary Lyon: [chuckles] People will laugh at this. I dialed 911 three different times trying to convince the operator that put me in contact with a strike team leader or somebody, because I needed engines where I was located.
Gary Lyon: Three times I called because you know, I'm watching people's houses, and I know the house is going to burn because there's nothing we can do with the garden hose. And I know that we had an engine down there, that might not have happened. But you know, the city was so overwhelmed and impacted in every direction that there's just not an engine for every house and that's just... I know that.
Joyce: Back at their house, Lori was having her own doubts about the viability of fighting a wildfire with a garden hose. Running back and forth in the dark, with smoke burning her eyes, she’d fallen, cutting open her knee and spraining her thumb. And it seemed like no matter how much water she sprayed on their house… it just wasn’t enough.
Lori Lyon: The embers were just coming down. It was just raining Embers and like... I couldn't get things wet enough fast enough. It was just raining embers on me.
Joyce: The embers were one problem. The flames were another. At first, they stayed mostly in front of the house, on the side away from the river… but then, the wind shifted direction, and suddenly, the vegetation behind their house was on fire too.
Lori Lyon: nd that's when I called Gary and I said: I think, you know, I might die. Because it was like surrounded by them, the flame.
Joyce: Lori’s escape plan, if it came to that, had been to run down to the river. But now, with the fire behind her house, that route was cut off.
Joyce: Even in Australia, where staying behind to fight a fire has long been considered a viable option, the government has been reevaluating in recent years as fires have become more intense and unpredictable.
Back in 2009, 173 people died in a single day in a cluster of fires that came to be known as Black Saturday. Many of those people had stayed behind to defend their homes. After a lengthy investigation, the government concluded that in some cases, those homes were simply indefensible; the fire was so intense that nothing could have saved them.
Official policy hasn’t changed in response to that: the Australian government still recognizes staying as a viable option in low and moderate intensity fires. But there’s more emphasis now on evacuating when fire conditions are extreme. Like they were the day of the Carr fire in Redding.
[Cut to news clips]
Reporter 1: One battalion chief calls it unprecedented how the fire rolled through the city.
Reporter 2: The wildfire nearly doubling in size in 12 hours…
[Music begins in background]
California Fireman: This is that new normal, that unpredictability, the large, explosive growth fires.
[End news clips]
Joyce: Back on Harlan Drive, Gary was witnessing the domino effect play out right in front of him.
[Sound of crackling flames]
Three houses in a row had burned… and the vinyl siding on a fourth one was starting to melt.
Gary Lyon: If you don't cool the fire down, the radiant heat is just going to impinge on the house next to it and it’s eventually going to catch fire from the radiant heat or the Embers from the existing fire. And unfortunately a garden hose was not going to be enough to cool the fire down to keep it from spreading once it was fully involved like they were.
Joyce: But just as things at the fourth house were starting to look grim… a battalion chief arrived in his pickup. It wasn’t a fire engine, but it was something.
Gary Lyon: And I asked him if he had any extinguishers or anything to help fight the fire, and he said: Yeah, I have an extinguisher in the back, and I have a pressurized water can. So I grabbed those. And it worked great until it ran out [Laughs]
Joyce: I can't imagine, you know, trying to fight a house fire with literally a fire extinguisher.
Gary Lyon: Well, remember fires start small, and this fire was just impinging on this house and starting to melt some of the siding. So it wasn't fully involved, and the other house was so far gone that you just had to cool parts of it that was causing the radiant heat to melt the adjacent siding. So I wouldn't call it fighting a house fire. You were just cooling down, by this time, the remnants of the house that had burned down.
Joyce: Back at their house, Lori was still working to keep it from suffering the same fate. She’d talked to Gary on the phone, but hadn’t seen him since the fire started.
Lori Lyon: But you know, when I go, when I run to the front of the house, because and I got a view of all the houses down in our cul-de-sac burning. And not, you know... I didn't know where Gary was, because he was behind their homes trying to keep them safe. And so just looking down the road, and there was no engines, and watching those homes burn was just horrific.
Joyce: But there was nothing to do but keep fighting the fire. So Lori ran, back and forth and back and forth. Then, after maybe an hour or two… neither Gary nor Lori can say for sure…
[Sound of crackling flames intensifies, then cuts sharply]
Suddenly things got quiet.
Lori Lyon: I realized it's passed. That the fire’s past our homes now, and the helicopters had stopped, and it just got quiet. And that was the best sound ever. I just knew that I made it.
Joyce: Around the time the fire started to die down, an engine did finally show up in the neighborhood. Gary knew the firefighters driving it.
Gary Lyon: One of my friends on the first engine to arrive said: Chief you want a Gatorade? And my mouth was so dry. And I had even started to cramp up at one point in time, I assume from dehydration. And that Gatorade never tasted so good. It went down, uh… [Laughs] Seems kind of funny, through all this chaos, a nice cold drink of Gatorade was... man. It was awesome.
Lori Lyon: I called everybody and I told them that we were we made it, and our house made it. And it took us a few hours then, I mean, we didn't really go to sleep.. We sat on the couch in the pitch dark and just talked for a while.
Gary Lyon: And, you know, debriefed. She wanted to know what I was doing, and I wanted to know what she was doing, and and how she was doing.
Joyce: Not surprisingly, Gary was doing much better than Lori.
Gary Lyon: You know, I guess to me because I'm retired firefighter, it seemed like another day at the office, only using smaller diameter hoses, but I never on this particular case felt that I was in danger.
Joyce: But once the sun came up, it quickly became clear that Gary and Lori had very, very narrowly avoided being in serious danger. In their cul de sac at the end of Harlan Drive, six homes had burned… but many more were still standing, including, of course, theirs.
Just a block away, it was a totally different story.
Gary Lyon: I just couldn't believe what I was seeing, with the trees uprooted and the roofs and chimneys blown off of roof tops. And the trail, you know, there was a kind of a very distinct trail, that this fire, whirlwind, or whatever event came through there left.
I'm not sure it would have been survivable. If somebody stayed down there
Lori Lyon: If that firenado would have came through, we would have been... we wouldn't have made it. We would have not had had a chance.
Joyce: Across the world, fire behavior is becoming more extreme and unpredictable thanks to years of aggressive fire suppression combined with climate change. Keeping fires at bay, like we did in the past, isn’t an option anymore. We’re going to have to learn to live with fires. But that’s going to be harder than ever.
Staying, like Lori and Gary did, has always been the riskier decision, if leaving is an option. But historically, a well-prepared, actively-defended home had a good chance of surviving a fire. That’s not necessarily the case anymore.
But even knowing that a few hundred yards down the street, he might have been dead, Gary says he would do it again.
Gary Lyon: Well, there's no way of predicting where that's going to come. And under the same circumstances, I would stay initially, and if things change I may change my mind, but in this case, I didn't feel threatened by what was happening a block down the street.
Joyce: Surprisingly, Lori agrees. She’s still traumatized by the experience of fighting the fire… the sound of helicopters brings her back to that night. But she says she’d do it again if it meant saving their house.
Lori Lyon: Probably still be just as scared, but I would stay.
Joyce: Gary and Lori probably won’t ever have to make a choice about whether to stay or go ever again. But having to actually face down a fire has got them both thinking more about how to be better prepared for one. They’ve already had conversations with some of their neighbors about things like fencing and hoses… and they hope it doesn’t take more devastating fires for people elsewhere to start doing the same. Gary says for too long, homeowners have let appearance trump fire resistance.
Gary Lyon: But I think that there's going to be a change in those philosophies here in the near future.
Michael Roberts: That’s Stephanie Joyce, speaking with Gary and Lori Lyon.
This episode was written and produced by Stephanie, with very little light editing by me, Michael Roberts. Music by Robbie Carver.
The Outside Podcast is a production of Outside Integrated Media and distributed by PRX. We’ll be back next week.