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Northern California Bear Fire Explodes to 250,000 Acres, Destroying Community

Fire officials evacuated people from the Berry Creek area late Tuesday. An undetermined number suffered burns. On Wednesday afternoon, the area was desolate, and blanketed in heavy smoke.

A home burns during the Bear fire, part of the North Lightning Complex fires in the Berry Creek area of unincorporated Butte County, California on September 9, 2020. - Dangerous dry winds whipped up California's record-breaking wildfires and ignited new blazes, as hundreds were evacuated by helicopter and tens of thousands were plunged into darkness by power outages across the western United States. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
(TNS) - The Bear Fire burning in Northern California exploded Tuesday night and into Wednesday, destroying the rural Berry Creek community above Lake Oroville in Butte County, and prompting evacuation orders for at least 20,000 people lower down the hill in the Oroville area and surrounding towns.
Berry Creek, a secluded rural area of about 1,200 people, was in ashen ruins Wednesday, hours after a midnight firestorm and frantic evacuation.
“I’ve only seen three homes left standing,” said Sacramento Bee photographer Jason Pierce Wednesday afternoon, reporting from the hill town. “Dozens of houses and businesses are destroyed. Every house is just dust.”
Fire officials evacuated people from the Berry Creek area late Tuesday. An undetermined number suffered burns. On Wednesday afternoon, the area was desolate, and blanketed in heavy smoke. A fire crew was in town working on remaining spot fires, and Butte Sheriff’s deputies were patrolling the area.
2:39 p.m.: COVID-19 fouls up evacuation shelter plans
Butte County Supervisor Doug Teeter, who lost his home in the Camp Fire, said there’s a major issue with trying to find evacuees shelter. Because of COVID-19, they can’t stay in traditional shelters.
The Red Cross is trying to find them lodging, but some have pets and livestock, which makes it extra challenging and many don’t want to leave the county.
He noted Butte County has been through a lot the past few years, starting with the Oroville Dam spillway failure in 2017 that forced Oroville to evacuate, followed by the Camp Fire in 2018 that burned the town of Paradise and surrounding communities.He said that at least the Oroville Dam failure was a one-time deal. The fires, he said, are only going to continue if California doesn’t become much more proactive about managing its forests to prevent wildfires.
Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly, whose district includes Berry Creek, was even more frustrated. He said the U.S. Forest Service let that fire burn for days when they should have put it out. He said he hasn’t gotten an official report from the sheriff or fire officials, but “there’s probably deaths; a lot of homes burned down.”
“They let this fire smolder for weeks,” he said. “They could have put it out. ... This is procrastination from the U.S. Forest Service, and we’re paying the price.”
Like Teeter, he said he’s frustrated with officials letting the woods surrounding Butte County communities becoming so badly overgrown.
”It’s time to get the environmentalists out of the forests,” he said.
Regarding Butte County getting hit by yet another tragedy, he said, “It weighs on you, and it weighs on these people. It’s tough.”
2:32 p.m.: ‘The sky was ... turning red’
Vanessa Reeves-Farry fled Berry Creek late Tuesday afternoon, with ash falling from a bright orange sky. By Wednesday afternoon, she was bracing herself for the fact that her home of the past 15 years was likely gone.
“Pretty much, from what I’ve heard, our whole town or 90% of our town” was destroyed, she said in a phone interview.
Reeves-Farry lamented the damage done to the community.
“It was great. Mountain living,” she said. “Your don’t have a lot of people bugging you.”
Another evacuee, David Tonick, didn’t have to be told twice to leave. A former volunteer fire chief, he packed up and went to a friend’s house after the evacuation order arrived.
He recalled that as he was leaving Tuesday afternoon, “the sky was kind of turning red. I’ve never seen the sky turn red before.”
2:30 p.m. Oroville residents safe, but trapped
With freeways blocked off to the east and to the west, many Oroville residents were essentially safe but trapped, said Wagon Wheel Market deli manager Rachel Johnston.
The roadside general store had sold lots of ready-made meals such as sandwiches and rotisserie chickens to people living nearby as well as those who evacuated to Gold Country Casino Resort, where the dining rooms were closed due to COVID-19.
Trauma isn’t new here, Johnston said. A perennial Cal Fire sign outside warns “wildfire is coming. Is your home ready?” The town notably made national news three years ago with a frantic Sunday night evacuation when officials feared the Oroville Dam spillway failure might led to a dam failure.
“Unfortunately, people in this area are kind of use to (evacuating),” Johnston said. “They’re a little more tired, a little more quiet than normal. But in Butte County, we’ve gotten used to it.”
2 p.m. Fighting fire on the ridge above Oroville
After spending Tuesday night evacuating residents in the now-devastated Berry Creek, fire crews on Wednesday worked to keep the fire out of the rural but populated Kelly Ridge area on the northeast flank of the city of Oroville.
The fast-moving fire burned around that edge of Lake Oroville during the night, forcing evacuations of a section of Oroville. But as of Wednesday afternoon, the fire was no longer making the progress it had the day before in high winds.
“The weather is not as dynamic today, so the fire is not moving like it was yesterday,” Cal Fire spokesman Rick Carhart said. “We are making sure to keep the fire out of the Kelly Ridge area. That has been our target today.”
1:05 p.m.: 50-year resident watched Berry Creek burn, won’t return
John Sykes, a 68-year-old construction worker who has lived in Berry Creek for 50 years, said he fled town Tuesday afternoon with his wife and a woman they are caring for, then watched from about a mile away as the Bear Fire tore through the community, obliterating everything, including his home.
“Berry Creek is gone,” Sykes said in a telephone interview from his vehicle-turned-home. “We’re all OK, but we’re traumatized.
“We had enough time to get out OK. We have our car and a pair of clothes and that’s it.”
Sykes said the group slept in the car overnight, then drove to Nevada on Wednesday morning to start the process of looking for housing.
“I’m homeless right now,” he said. “We’re going to find shelter. We’re not destitute or anything.”
But he said he was shaken by watching overnight from about a mile away as the flames swept through.
“The school is gone, the fire department’s gone, the bar’s gone, the laundromat’s gone, the general store’s gone,” he said.
Now, after half a century of living in the Butte County town and surviving countless wildfires, Sykes said he has made a decision.
“I’ll never go back,” he said. “I don’t want to see it. That’s why I’m leaving. I never want to see California again.”
11:55 a.m.: Oroville may escape damage from fire, mayor says
Oroville Mayor Chuck Reynolds said just before noon Wednesday that the Bear Fire appears to have spared much of his city, although other areas such as Berry Creek have been completely burned through.
“The fire turned through the east foothills last night, but it has made it down to the east side of the lake,” Reynolds said in a phone interview from City Hall. “It seems to have run out of fuel at this point, although there are some spots that are still burning. It has not jumped the lake.”
“The wind has really died down. In fact, it’s almost non-existent.”
Reynolds said he is hopeful the fire will not pose further threat to Oroville if the winds do not resume, but added that he had heard other communities were hit hard overnight.
“Berry Creek’s been burned through, Brush Creek, Feather Falls, Forbestown, Clipper Mills all have been burned through.”
Reynolds said he had not heard any reports of burn victims coming to Oroville Hospital, and that most residents of the city stayed in place overnight rather than evacuating. Most of the evacuations he was aware of were in the Kelly Ridge neighborhood, he said.
“We have seen any fire victims yet, were not aware of any as of yet,” he said.
11:30 a.m.: Mandatory evacuations expanded in Plumas County
Evacuation orders have been extended, now in place for all residents and campgrounds in the Bucks Lake area and the nearby stretch of Highway 162 near the Plumas-Butte county line, according to Plumas County officials.
11 a.m.: Berry Creek damaged, Oroville threatened
Carin Dorghalli, a reporter with the Chico Enterprise-Record, reported on Twitter on Wednesday morning that the hamlet of Berry Creek “is leveled.” She also reported that firefighters “rescued a hundred people from the #BearFire, including burn victims.”
U.S. Forest Service and emergency authorities haven’t yet issued official reports or estimates regarding property destruction.
Berry Creek is about 25 miles northeast of Oroville, at an elevation of 2,000 feet. Its population is estimated at 525. The town has an elementary school, a mini-mart and two churches.
Cal Fire officials warned that the fire’s edges near Oroville are “unsecure” after a wild night Tuesday above Lake Oroville that firefighters were forced to flee.
Fire spokesman Bruce Prudhomme said firefighters are headed back into the burned Berry Creek area now to make an assessment of damage, which is said to be extensive.
“We don’t know anything yet about structures or injuries, we are assessing today,” Prudhomme said. “We pulled them out of the way. It was a roaring fire with extremely hazardous field conditions. Very aggressive fire.”
The fire burned 30 miles long and 25 miles wide Tuesday and early Wednesday in what Prudhomme described as a “sprint” that consumed 80,000 acres. The southern perimeter, next to Oroville “is unsecured,” he said.
Four burn and trauma victims form the Bear Fire have been taken to the UC Davis Medical Center burn unit and are all currently in critical condition, spokeswoman Karen Finney said.
11 a.m.: Bear Fire growing at furious, unprecedented speed
The Bear Fire, a southwest extension of the North Complex that sparked in mid-August at Plumas National Forest, has burned at an unparalleled rate since flaring in extremely gusty wind Tuesday.
The U.S. Forest Service as of 11 a.m. Wednesday estimated the fire complex size at approximately 254,000 acres — nearly 400 square miles — after giving an early estimate of 150,000 acres around 8 a.m.
Nearly all the North Complex growth Tuesday and Wednesday has been from the Bear Fire’s unprecedented runs. As recently as Tuesday morning, the Forest Service reported the complex at just over 40,000 acres.
That means the North Complex has exploded to become at least the ninth-largest wildfire in state history, according to Cal Fire records; and the 214,000 acres that have burned in a little more than 24 hours would, on their own, represent California’s 12th-biggest fire ever. The rest of the Top 12 took several days, if not weeks or longer to grow beyond 200,000 acres.
“Topography, high winds, and dry fuels aligned to produce unprecedented fire behavior,” the Forest Service wrote in a Wednesday morning incident update. “... Multiple communities have been evacuated with a likelihood of additional evacuations today.”
10 a.m.: Evacuations, warnings issued in Oroville area, parts of Paradise
The Butte County Sheriff’s Office has issued a flurry of evacuation orders and warnings, primarily near the south corner of Lake Oroville, extending west along Highway 162 as far as Foothill Boulevard on the outskirts of Oroville. Evacuations are also mandatory in a less-populated area north of the Feather River, east of Cherokee Road and west of the lake.
The entire city of Oroville, except the immediate area of Oroville Municipal Airport that’s located across Highway 70 from the rest of the city, was under a voluntary evacuation warning as of Wednesday morning. The Butte County Courthouse in Oroville has closed because of the fire.
The town of Paradise issued its own evacuation warning separate from those of the county for Zone 14, the town’s southeast corner east of Pentz Road and south of Pearson Road, at 8:45 a.m.
Shortly before 8 a.m., sheriff’s officials issued an evacuation warning for lower Concow on the north side of Highway 70. One live AlertWildfire camera maintained by PG&E located in Jarbo Gap, between Highway 70 and the Concow Reservoir, showed thick orange smoke blanketing the surrounding hills shortly after sunrise.
Extreme smoke from the fire, mixed with the morning sun, have turned the skies orange or even blood red in those areas, as well as near Chico, as seen on multiple cameras with the AlertWildfire network.
A vast patch of sparsely populated land east of Highway 70 extending south nearly to the Butte-Yuba county line is also under a warning.
Oroville has a population of close to 20,000. The evacuation warning for the city came around 2 a.m. and had not been upgraded to a mandatory order as of 9:30 a.m., but Mayor Chuck Reynolds ordered all city staffers to remain at home and prepare to evacuate if necessary.
“I am at work and will do what I can from here in the event we have to leave,” Reynolds wrote in a Facebook post Wednesday morning. “The big concern for City Hall is the computer servers.
“If we have to leave I am going to have the IT team pull the servers in an attempt to preserve our data if the unthinkable were to occur.”
Reynolds added that the Oroville Hospital plans to shelter in place and that some areas of the city have shut down.
“It appeared the businesses that are usually open at 530 a.m. are not open today,” he wrote. “I think most people are preparing to evacuate or have evacuated.”
Reynolds also said the city is working to get homeless residents out and are “encouraging them to leave if possible or gather at one place so we can get them transported if it becomes necessary.”
In Yuba County, mandatory evacuation orders were ordered Tuesday for the area of La Porte and New York Flat roads, north of Brownsville. The area includes the communities of Forbestown, Woodleafe, Clipper Mills and Strawberry Valley.
The Bear Fire is part of the North Complex, a lightning-ignited group of fires that started more than three weeks ago in the Plumas National Forest area. The cluster of fires stayed concentrated in Plumas County prior to this week, but the western side of the complex flared up dramatically Tuesday, producing a massive, dark smoke cloud that blanketed the area.
Wind gusts exceeded 50 mph in Northern California throughout much of Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.
A frightening sight for Camp Fire survivors
Locals impacted by the Camp Fire tragedy two years ago know the peril of Northern California wildfires all too well.
“The sky is completely red; it’s raining like snow, the ash,” said Bill Hopper, a Paradise resident whose home burned down in the 2018 Camp Fire.
Hopper said he and his neighbors are anxiously tracking the progress of the fire and are worried about the prospect of another fire sweeping through Paradise. The Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed most of the town.
“We have the car and the truck loaded and ready to go,” Hopper said. “All the neighbors have been up ... roaming and chatting with each other.”
Hopper has spent the past year building a new home on his property and is anguished about the possibility of another fire.
“Not again — they’re going to burn it down before we get to use it?” he said, referring to his new home.
Peggy Mattier, who lives on the east side of Paradise, said she and her neighbors have been outside all morning watching the sky. “It’s dark, it’s pitch black,” she said. “Lots and lots of ash coming down. We can see an orange glow ... but I don’t see any flame.”
She said everyone is on edge.
“We’re ready — car’s packed.”
Cal Fire’s Butte Unit posted photos around 1:30 a.m. from Highway 162 and Forbestown Road, showing the fire “has crested the hill across the lake” from that location. The photos show deep orange flames lighting up the hill.
The Bear Fire jumped the Middle Fork of the Feather River around 10 a.m. Tuesday, the Forest Service said in an evening incident report.
“A dry cold front passing over the fire with very high winds and low humidities rapidly drove the high-intensity crown fire to the southwest,” the Forest Service said.
The Forest Service reports the North Complex is collectively 150,140 acres with 38% containment as of Wednesday morning. It has burned brush and timber since sparking in Plumas National Forest on Aug. 17. The eastern half of the fire complex held within its containment lines Tuesday, authorities said.
More than 1,400 firefighters are assigned to the North Complex.
A separate incident in Yuba County first reported Wednesday morning, the Willows Fire, caused the evacuation of approximately 3,000 residents from Loma Rica, Cal Fire said. By afternoon, officials said smokey conditions and cooling weather helped tamp down the blaze.
Temporary evacuation staging areas for the Bear Fire have been established, at the Yuba-Sutter Fairgrounds and Dobbins Alcouffee Center in Yuba County, and at the Gridley Fairgrounds in Butte County. Numerous road closures are in place throughout both counties.
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