Nearly the entire city of Oroville is under an evacuation warning, issued around 2 a.m.
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.
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.”