Northern California is presently besieged by a giant wildfire, complete with "firenados," a blaze that is being counted as among the 10 worst fires in California's history.
The Carr fire, which began in Shasta county near Redding last week, has consumed more than 103,000 acres of land and has continued to grow as the land is tinderbox dry. Reports indicate that residents have never seen anything like this and are describing the scene as "apocalyptic."
At least 723 homes have been destroyed, six people have reportedly died and others remain missing.
The home of Redding residents Judah and Krystal Gowan was completely burned to the ground, and they were caught off guard by the fire's rapid movement.
On Thursday, they spoke to the fire crew in their neighborhood near Keswick dam, and were told that their house should be safe. But around two hours later, they received a call from a family member in the area saying they had to get out immediately or they would be unable to escape at all.
"I was petrified," Krystal Gowan said in a Monday interview with The Christian Post.
"I have two toddlers, my parents live with me, plus cats and dogs. Within the span of five minutes we grabbed exactly that list, shoved everyone in the car, and we ran. As we drove out of our gated community the fire trucks were entering and using loudspeakers for us to exit."
As they left, they saw several homes on fire and the blaze was surrounding the whole community. Gowan heard later that others were taken out of the neighborhood via helicopter. She told CP she took her first shower last night and expected the ash she felt she was covered in to pour into the drain, but noted the water was remarkably clear.
"And I thought, 'this is God saying He's got us, He's already taken care of this,'" Gowan recounted.
"We are a bit frozen as a family. Everyone is in the same position, and we are such a close community. We all want to help each other," she said.
Relief efforts are underway and prayers are being sent from around the world.
Here are five things to know about the Carr fire, including what leaders at Bethel Church, an influential charismatic church located in Redding, are saying.
How it all got started, conditions that have produced 'firenados'
The Carr fire began one week ago when a vehicle suffered a mechanical failure and set the ground ablaze and spread rapidly, according to local officials. The blaze occurred at the intersection of Highway 299 and Carr Powerhouse Road in Whiskeytown, just outside of Redding, near Whiskeytown National Park.
By Wednesday and Thursday, the fire was growing so quickly that Highway 299 had to be closed and nearby areas were placed under mandatory evacuation.
Ultra hot conditions have worsened the situation as strong gusts of wind escalated the fire, causing it to double in size. The conditions have been so severe that a localized weather system has been created; though they are not tornados, what appear to be "firenados" have been spotted across the region, swirling with intensity. Unlike the strong winds typical in other California wildfires, the winds in Redding are of a different variety.
Exacerbated by triple-digit temperatures that have peaked in the 110s in the past week, the extremely hot smoke rises and creates a ferocious updraft, a force so potent it starts to rotate. While most fire swirls are relatively small, large ones have been seen stretching to the sky, terrifying residents and atmospheric observers.
"The Carr Fire is unprecedented in that strong winds were not driving the fire, but rather the plume rotated and intensified creating its own weather. For a fire to burn into Redding like that is very unique," said Professor Craig Clements, director of the fire weather research lab at San Jose State University, as reported by Mercury News.
Likewise, Neil Lareau, assistant professor of atmospheric science at the University of Nevada at Reno, commented that the fire tornado was a "[f]ull-on rotating convective column. Scary as hell."
Smoke from the wildfire is so thick it can be seen from outer space and it is blanketing portions of the state.
California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, a request President Donald Trump approved Saturday. The president's action allows federal agencies to dispense disaster response equipment and resources in addition to U.S. military personnel and Defense Department assets.
6 people dead, others missing
The fire has claimed the lives of six people, among them a firefighter, a bulldozer operator, a 70-year-old woman and her two great-grandkids, James and Emily Roberts, ages 5 and 4. The name of the sixth deceased person has not yet been released publicly.
"I was only gone about 15 minutes when my wife called and said, 'You gotta get here. The fire's coming up the hill," said Ed Bledsoe, in an interview with CBS.
Bledsoe is the husband of Melody Bledsoe, who perished with her two great-grandchildren in the Carr fire. He had no idea his home was endangered and had been running an errand. The blaze moved so quickly that when Bledsoe tried to go back home he could not get there as cars were blocking the road and the flames were so large he could not return on foot.
"I would have died right there with them. They're that important to me," he said, choking back sobs as he recounted how he had spoken with his panicked wife and grandson on the phone as the fire was arriving at their back door.
He maintains he never received an evacuation warning.
Jeremy Stoke, a Redding firefighter, died Thursday while battling the blaze as was Don Smith, an 81-year-old privately hired bulldozer operator, according to local reports.
Many residents of the western Redding and surrounding communities of Shasta and Keswick had less than 30 minutes to flee their homes. At least a dozen people are currently missing.
Where things now stand
As of Monday night, the fire was 23 percent contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Fire crews have been working around the clock fighting the blaze and building control lines. More than 3,300 personnel are presently combating the flames.
Evacuation centers have been set up throughout Redding that authorities have deemed safe. Although the blaze jumped the Sacramento River, the Carr Fire has not crossed Interstate-5 into the eastern part of the city.
Evacuation orders remain in effect for thousands of people.
Local and national reports indicate that around 40,000 residents have evacuated.
Sources who evacuated said so much ash was in the air that driving at night was like driving during a snowstorm. Good cooperation among residents is happening though some looting is also reportedly occurring.
Bethel Church responds, what some are saying about what the fire means
Redding is home to Bethel Church, a charismatic Christian congregation with thousands of members and a sizable reach overseas through its presence on Bethel TV and its alumni who have graduated from its school of ministry.
Bill Johnson, senior leader of the church, emphasized on Sunday the importance of grieving with those who have suffered losses but said he is confident his city will be renewed.
"For several days now, we've heard and seen the voice of the Devourer," Johnson said of the fire. "You're about to hear the voice of the Restorer.
"This [fire] will last for days, that [restoration] will last for years. And it's going to capture the attention of the region because the Lord will demonstrate Himself strong."
Johnson reported that he has been receiving support and encouragement from people around the world, with churches in Germany, Norway, Singapore, Indonesia, and others all interceding for Redding.
Similarly, Shawn Bolz, who leads Expressions 58 in Glendale, California, and regularly ministers at Bethel, believes that the disaster is a precursor to many people coming to know Christ, and that He will ultimately work this out for good.
"Before God moves in power and might, we have seen a pattern in many revivals or waves a pre-action on the earth: depressions, natural disasters, wars and rumors of war. Almost every time a whole region gets hit by something natural, man-made or enemy-initiated, the glory of God follows shortly after in unprecedented ways," Bolz wrote in a post on Charisma News Friday.
"I believe what God will do in Redding shortly after this terrible week will be historic for the church at large and will help to bring about a window of evangelism and ingenuity to the church that will come across media, both Christian and secular: Breakthrough is imminent!"
Author Johnny Enlow also noted on his Facebook page that the "angry destructive winds were sourced from the devil but he has massively overreached and that will become very evident."
"We all have an opportunity to collaborate and partner with seeing beauty from ashes in Redding and surrounding areas and I can tell many, many of you are going to respond. California itself will begin to turn as part of the resurrection power God releases in Redding. The diabolical hit attempt is significant but the heavenly counter will be so immense it will have world wide ramifications. God is always greater."
Hope of God's faithfulness amid tragedy, fire victims speak
In the midst of destruction, the Gowans remain hopeful and confident in God's goodness despite the events.
"We rejoice, because God is the God of miracles, and we've got one coming for this. For not one moment have we thought [the fire] was from God. What we know about our God is that He is good, and in the midst, He was long ago seeding the ground for the new life that is already bursting [forth]," Krystal Gowan said.
"It is painful, and shocking, and confusing, but God knew and so He already had a plan to supercede our need and our pain. We as a family just want to quiet ourselves so we can know what the next steps are."
Like many Redding residents who have lost their homes, donations have been pouring into a GoFundMe page that was set up for them.
Ray and Kathryn Leight's house was also reduced to nothing but ashes.
The Leights had been on vacation and had just flown into Sacramento Wednesday and checked into a hotel, planning on making the more than two-hour drive north to Redding the next day. They did not even know about the fires until they woke up Thursday and realized they had missed a call from their son, who had gotten out just prior to the mandatory evacuation. They soon found out their home had burned completely.
"We had so many people reach out to us with messages, calls, and texts but I was unable to talk to anybody right away," Ray Leight said in an email to CP Monday afternoon.
"I couldn't talk about it without crying. There have been many layers of emotions and grief that we have had to process so far. We are trying to find a sense of normalcy in the middle of this loss. It is so weird not to just be able to go home and rest."
The recovery process is "unpredictable," he noted, as each day brings new challenges and other things trigger the grief afresh, such as the loss of family heirlooms. The Leights ended up returning to Sacramento.
"When we first left Redding it was odd to get to Sacramento and see that people are just living their lives as if nothing is wrong. The apocalyptic feel of the devastation in Redding was so intense, it seemed like everyone should know," he said.
"At this point we are just doing our best to love each other well as we are going through this process together, and appreciate what we do have."