(TNS) - The monstrous North Complex fires claimed another seven lives in Butte County, bringing the death toll to 10 on Thursday as search crews looked for 26 people who have not been heard from.
In one case, investigators asked relatives of a missing 16-year-old boy to provide DNA samples, which helped confirm that one of the dead was their loved one, Josiah Williams, of Berry Creek.
“We are at a complete loss for words right now,” his aunt, Bobbie Zedaker, told The Chronicle late Thursday night.
The wildfires tore into rural Butte County towns, devastating several communities, including Berry Creek and Feather Falls, on Tuesday and continued to burn Thursday.
Butte County sheriff’s Capt. Derek Bell reported the additional deaths in a Thursday evening news conference, 24 hours after his boss, Sheriff Kory Honea, announced the first three.
“We’re still investigating the circumstances of these deaths,” he said. “(We) want to make sure that the notification to next of kin is done in the most respectful manner we can do it.”
As of Thursday evening the Sheriff’s Office had received 124 calls requesting welfare checks of people in the evacuation zone. Some called to say they had not heard from a loved one in those zones.
Bell said investigators located 98 people, leaving 26 unaccounted for. He cautioned, however, that those figures were fluid and rapidly changing as more people were found and others reported missing.
One of those missing had been Williams. His aunt told The Chronicle that Josiah’s brother had submitted DNA to test against remains found in the area of Berry Creek.
North Complex’s 10 casualties make it the 10th deadliest wildfire in California history, tying with Trinity County’s Iron Alps Complex fires in 2008. The grim distinction comes two years after the Camp Fire, a wind-whipped inferno that killed 85 people and made Butte County home to the deadliest wildfire in state history.
California was already seeing its worst fire season on record when strong winds blew up weeks-old blazes this week, sending them racing toward populated areas and forcing new evacuees to compete for hotel rooms and sleep in cars. The North Complex fires began Aug. 17.
The wildfire has scorched more than 247,300 acres so far and burned more than 2,000 structures. More than 22,000 structures are still threatened, including buildings in Oroville and Paradise.
The North Complex, which is also burning in Yuba and Plumas counties, is one of 29 major blazes burning across California.
More than 3.1 million acres have now burned in California since the start of the year, dramatically increasing the extent to which this fire season has charred more land than any other in the state’s recorded history.
So far, six fires this year are now on the top 20 list of largest fires ever in the state.
“We are hitting the record books in ways that we never would have imagined,” said Daniel Berlant, an assistant deputy director at Cal Fire. He added that with months more to go in fire season, that new record of 3.1 million acres will only increase.
The previous record-setting fire season occurred in 2018, when about 1.98 million acres burned.
After burning for weeks and despite being more than a third contained at one point, the North Complex exploded, increasing by 210,000 acres in 24 hours Tuesday to Wednesday.
Residents had started to relax as firefighters appeared to get the upper hand on lightning-sparked blazes.
Teresa Lindemann, 50, a home health aide from Oroville, had been keeping a casual eye on the North Complex for weeks, hoping for the best for those in its path, but not worried that it posed a threat to her family.
That all changed Monday night, as winds picked up and reports indicated that the fire was getting away from containment efforts.
On Tuesday, Lindemann nervously checked the computer for updates all day and loaded supplies and many of her animals onto their RV. When an evacuation warning came that night, they left, not wanting to get caught in traffic at the last minute.
Her home still appears to be safe, for now.
“It’s kind of an eerie feeling when the heroes we rely on to protect our homes, even they feel like it’s getting out of control,” she said.
While Lindemann’s wife and a few of their children went to a hotel, she has been stuck at the Yuba-Sutter Fairgrounds for the past two days with their pets, including a litter of seven puppies not even a month old.
Because of the coronavirus, the evacuation center is a bare-bones operation compared with past years — just an open field with no trees where evacuees can park. There is no prepared food, Lindemann said, and she doesn’t have propane to cook, so her family has had to eat out every meal.
“Everyone just kind of fends for themselves,” she said.
Nearby, Elizabeth Snodgrass — along with three family members and five dogs — are sleeping in their cars.
Snodgrass, 68, left her home in Brownsville Tuesday night.
Though they were offered hotel vouchers, all the rooms nearby were booked and they were wary of driving any farther from home. With limited income from Social Security, Snodgrass worried about getting stranded somewhere expensive like Sacramento while they waited for Brownsville to reopen.
“We don’t have a lot of money, so we don’t want to spend it on gas. Then we might not be able to get back,” she said. “At least here the Red Cross is giving us something.”
By Thursday afternoon, Berry Creek had been reduced to mile after mile of blackened trees stripped of their leaves, downed power lines and burned-out cars. Very little remained of most homes other than twisted metal and chimneys.
Then every so often, a building appeared to have been left untouched by the fire, including one home halfway through the process of adding on a room and the Berry Creek Community Creek. Next door, the local guild hall was completely burned down to its foundation.
In Monterey County, the Dolan Fire also surged this week, tripling in size in recent days, reaching 110,000 acres as it spread south onto U.S. Army property at Fort Hunter Liggitt.
Winds also whipped up the August Complex fires this week, with nearly 500,000 total acres burned across Mendocino, Trinity, Tehama, Lake and Glenn counties. It was 24% contained Thursday.
The August Complex is now the largest wildfire in state history and the top five have all burned within the past three years.
The Red Cross has 800 volunteers assigned to California’s wildfires and more on the way, said spokesman Justin Kern.
The fires have tested the system, with waves of evacuees needing help in various communities and the pandemic preventing the traditional large shelter settings.
The people on the ground in California are working with local authorities to identify where there is need — like hotel rooms for those with vouchers — or other needs, he said.
“We are figuring out these issues,” he said. “We’re going to work as fast as we possibly can to get people what they need.”
Experts have blamed the worsening wildfire crisis on a number of factors, including climate change, which is parching the state’s forests, wooded hills and grasslands and priming them to burn more intensely.
Most of the northern half of the state is in some level of drought after winter brought far below normal amounts of rain and snow. But California’s extensive history of extreme fire suppression in areas where wildfire has long been a natural part of the landscape as well as poor forest management are also causes, fire experts say.
San Francisco Chronicle
staff writer J.D. Morris
contributed to this story.