REDDING, Calif. — They marched through a once-landscaped road reduced to ash. The temperatures had reached such intensity that there was no dirt left on the ground, just fused bedrock strewn with petrified trees. The heavy air was red and tinged with dirt, casting the scorched residential neighborhood in a sepia tone.
The roughly three-dozen firefighters in yellow protective suits were searching for any remnants of their fallen colleague, Jeremy Stoke — a badge, a vest, or any personal mementos he might have kept in his truck. But they did not have much time to search. The calls for help kept coming.
The Redding Fire Department firefighters have been working 24- and 36-hour shifts straight since the Carr Fire first ripped through this city of 90,000 people in Northern California last week. But their grief must still come second to their duty. And if the scale of the Carr Fire is hard to comprehend, so too is the anguish it has caused to those on the front lines, who have faced tragedy within their city, within their ranks, and very often within their families.
“We’re doing this for our brother. We want to give his family something to hang on to,” said Patrick O’Connor, Mr. Stoke’s colleague and friend of more than a decade. “We just want something to hang on to. The stuff that gets sentimental is the stuff he had with him,” he said, in between deep breaths of thick air.
At the peak of the blaze, between 35,000 and 39,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes, including many emergency workers and municipal staff. The fire has burned more than 116,000 acres, destroyed 1,018 homes and damaged an additional 181; six people have been killed, including two firefighters. It remains just 35 percent contained, but is already the seventh most destructive fire in California’s history.
“We had never seen anything like that before. You don’t want to say that as a firefighter, but yeah, we were scared — we were scared something was going to happen,” said Mr. O’Connor, 37, an inspector who has been in the fire service for nearly two decades. “But that’s the job.”
Six California firefighters have died this year so far, well above the average, and four of those deaths came in July. Emergency managers are concerned that the spate of July deaths could foretell a dangerous summer fire season; in 2017, 12 California firefighters died on the job, seven of them between June and December.
The Carr Fire has proved especially vicious. Days of abnormally high temperatures this summer and residual impact from a drought have contributed to the intensity of fires, by making vegetation drier and more likely to ignite. Analyses have shown that climate change has increased the likelihood of such extreme heat waves.
By Thursday last week, the fire had grown so large that it began to create its own out-of-control weather system. A “fire tornado” as large as 400 feet wide on the outskirts of Redding tore trees, homes and cars off the ground and hurled them about, incinerating them at the same time. Mr. Stoke, 37, a Redding fire inspector who had been helping evacuate residents on Thursday night, was caught in the middle.
He left behind a wife, a 10-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son, according to the department.
“Go slow, go slow, take your time,” one firefighter told colleagues on Tuesday as they lined up side by side to visit the spot where Mr. Stoke was found. At a makeshift memorial about 20 feet away, they dropped off Redding Fire patches, flowers, and cans of Mr. Stoke’s favorite soft drink in his honor.
The night he died, Mr. Stoke had called for help, but his radio soon went silent, signaling trouble to his colleagues. Mr. O’Connor had tried to reach Mr. Stoke, he said, but the fire and smoke all around him made it difficult to get closer or see very far ahead.
“My heart sank. We were able to pinpoint his last transmission, so we knew approximately where he was, but you just couldn’t get in, you just couldn’t get in,” Mr. O’Connor said.
Teammates found Mr. Stoke’s remains in the early morning. An investigation was conducted by Cal Fire into the precise cause of his death, but the agency has not released any details; a public information officer said that report would likely not be available for several weeks. Mr. Stoke’s colleagues did not want to discuss the condition in which they found his body. The firefighter who found Mr. Stoke, Craig Wittner, told colleagues he first spotted the reflective tape from his jacket while canvassing with his flashlight.
After they found the body, inspectors with Cal Fire sealed the area to investigate before finally turning it back to the Redding Fire Department on Tuesday.
The fire has now shifted westward, away from town, and evacuations are being slowly lifted. But what comes next might be harder for residents than the nights in shelters, on friends’ floors or parked at gas stations. As people begin to return to their homes to see if their belongings were spared, some are finding they have been left with nothing.
And some are finding parts of west Redding unrecognizable. In the most heavily damaged areas, some charred houses still stand, but vast stretches are so burned that there is no trace anyone ever lived there at all.
Many of the department’s 70 uniformed personnel have also been displaced or have lost their homes altogether. The firefighters tend to stick around the department for years, and team up at home and across California when called on to help other regions. Many said it feels like a family.
In his role as an inspector, Mr. Stoke wore many hats: providing support on the line, coordinating with the town’s police department, overseeing the department’s compliance with code, and, critically, arriving immediately on scene to determine how a fire started. If Mr. Stoke had not died, he would be out there sifting through the debris himself, his colleagues said.
The loss has come at a particularly hard time for the department. Just over three weeks ago, the fire chief, Gerry Gray, died from a heart attack. Mr. Gray joined the department in 2008 and became fire chief in 2015. He was 54.
“It’s all almost too raw,” said Karen Johnson, an administrator who has been there for nearly four years. “All these fellas are willing to do anything for anybody.”
Ms. Johnson lost her home in Bella Vista, Calif., just northeast of Redding, during the devastating Jones Fire in 1999, which destroyed parts of Shasta County. Memories of that fire have resurfaced for Ms. Johnson, who hosted three evacuees in her home in recent days. To this day she keeps a list of people who helped her back then, tucked away in a keepsake box.
“The smell, the sound of it, just the way it looks in the aftermath, it’s all coming back,” she said. “You do change after something like that. You realize how easy it is to lose everything.”
During a community meeting this week, the interim fire chief, Cullen Kreider, appeared emotional during brief remarks, in which he thanked the community and praised Mr. Gray and Mr. Stoke.
“It’s been only 29 days since we lost our fire chief Gerry Gray. And then last week we lost Jeremy, a friend and a great firefighter,” he said. “It’s been a hell of a month for our firefighters. I just want to acknowledge them. Some of our guys lost their homes as well, and probably about half of our department has been displaced and is still not in their homes. But these guys are out there protecting their community.”
On his desk at the fire department’s administrative office, Mr. Stoke left behind a half-empty bottle of diet Dr Pepper, which he drank regularly and which his daughter had “bedazzled” with stickers.
Mr. O’Connor can’t bring himself to throw it out.
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A13 of the New York edition with the headline: As Search for Fallen ‘Brother’ Continued, so Did Calls for Help. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe