CHICO (CBS SF) — Authorities early Wednesday evening confirmed that three people were dead and a dozen missing in connection with the Bear Fire that exploded in size overnight across three Northern California counties.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea confirmed the deaths during a Wednesday night briefing. The sheriff said two of the victims were found in one location while the third was found in a second location.READ MORE: Gov. Newsom Declares Drought Emergency In Sonoma, Mendocino Counties
The San Jose Mercury News reported that a CHP officer confirmed the individual fire victim was found late Wednesday morning near a car in the area of Bald Rock Road and Graystone Lane near Berry Creek. The individual was fleeing the fire, the officer said.
The identities of the victims have not been released.
Additionally, Sheriff Honea said 12 people are still missing after evacuations were ordered Tuesday night.
The Butte County Sheriff’s Office said they received 85 missing person reports or requests for welfare checks in the area affected by the fire. So far, Honea said deputies have safely located 73 individuals.
Cal Fire officials said hundreds of homes and other buildings are believed to have been damaged or destroyed in the fire. Officials said the fire had consumed 252,163 acres (down from earlier reports of over 254,000) and was 24 percent contained.
The exponential growth of the Bear Fire, which exploded overnight to over 250,000 acres, earlier led to expanded evacuation warnings Wednesday morning for parts of Yuba, Plumas and Butte counties.
The quickly advancing wall of flames from the Bear Fire roared along Highway 162 early Wednesday morning, setting homes ablaze in Bear Creek and along Bald Creek Road, forcing residents to frantically escape with only the clothes on their backs and a few cherished belongings in the predawn darkness.
The wildfire burning in the Plumas National Forest has led to mandatory evacuation orders in parts of Plumas, Butte and Yuba counties, according to authorities. The fire complex had grown to more than 254,000 acres by late Wednesday morning and containment has fallen from 51 percent to 38 percent overnight.
At a morning update, Operations Section Chief Jake Cagle said the 45 mph winds powered the fire to burn 1,000 acres every 30 minutes.
“We had extreme fire behavior, extreme fire growth,” he said. “Our focus has been life safety.”
On Wednesday morning, evacuation warnings were issued for residents living in the Butte County towns of Paradise and Concow — two communities ravaged by the 2018 Camp Fire that claimed 85 lives.
At 11:30 a.m., Plumas County authorities issued a mandatory evacuation order for the Bucks Lake community covering the area from Bucks Lake Road (Highway 162) at the Plumas/Butte County Line east to Bucks Lake Road at Big Creek Road, including Bucklin Road from Mill Creek Campground south to Bucks Lake Road.
Additional evacuation warnings were issued late Wednesday morning in Plumas County for the towns of Meadow Valley and Belden as well as the Oregon House/Dobbins region of Yuba County north of Marysville Road. More detailed information on evacuation orders and warnings currently in effect is available on the North Complex Fire incident website.
Alameda County Fire announced that units that had been working the CZU Lightning Complex fires were now moving north to lend overwhelmed firefighters a hand with the North Complex Fire.
— Alameda County Fire (@AlamedaCoFire) September 9, 2020
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The evacuation orders and warnings were associated with the North Complex Fire, which includes the Bear Fire and the Claremont Fire that appear to have merged.
— CAL FIRE Butte Unit/Butte County Fire Department (@CALFIRE_ButteCo) September 9, 2020
A new wildfire — the Willow Fire — erupted overnight off Neptune Lane and Willow Glen Road, north of Smartville in Yuba County. By late Wednesday morning, the Willow Fire had grown to 1,000 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,000 residents.
#WillowFire Marysville Rd and Willow Glen Rd in Loma Rica (Yuba County). Yuba County Sheriff reports 3000 residents evacuated in Loma Rica. Current closures include Marysville & Willow Glen, Fruitland & Honcut, Fruitland & Loma Rica, Peoria & Dolan Harding. Fire at 300 acres. pic.twitter.com/3GnV9qypAmREAD MORE: 'Kill Me;' Stunning Body Cam Video Of Danville Officer-Involved Shooting Released
— CAL FIRE Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit (@CALFIRENEU) September 9, 2020
By early Wednesday, the landscape near Oroville and Chico had been turned into a frightening inferno like the view from the Bidwell Bar Bridge over Lake Oroville.
There were many narrow escapes and unconfirmed social media reports of injuries. Video showed one badly burned fire victim being loaded into an ambulance.
Among those who had a close call with the flames was a man named Dennis, who was staying with friends in Bear Creek. While his friends chose to evacuate, he decided to try and ride it out.
As the fire approached the home, Dennis fled to shelter in a nearby metal shop.
“I saw the fire coming over the ridge,” he said. “It was huge. There was nothing I could do. It was too late. It was coming on me so fast. I had to go to a sheet metal shop on the property. It was burning all around me.”
As he huddled in the shop, the wall of fire literally roared through.
“I was in the shop and flames and smoke were coming up into the shop,” he said. “I pulled things away that could start on fire. I thought I was going to die. It was so fast, it sounded like a jet plane. I can’t believe I made it out.”
As he talked, Dennis’ face was smudged with soot.
“It (deciding to not evacuate) was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
Unfortunately, the area is all too familiar with the deadly nature of a massive wildfire. The Bear Fire was burning near Paradise, a mountain community that was devastated by the 2018 Camp Fire. The blaze claimed 85 lives in Paradise and nearby communities.
The North Complex blazes were ignited during a lightning storm on the morning of August 17, according to fire officials. But Red Flag Fire Warning winds whipped it into an moving inferno on Tuesday.
The first evacuation order was issued for La Porte and the area near the Little Grass Valley Reservoir late Tuesday morning by the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office. It said all residents in the town of La Porte and people in the campgrounds and recreational facilities at Little Grass Valley Road west of Quincy La Porte Road were being ordered to leave the area.
The announcement said that Quincy La Porte Road was closed and evacuees should leave the area south on Quincy La Porte Road toward Yuba County.
Temporary evacuation staging areas are being set up by Yuba County OES at the Dobbins Alcouffee Center located in Oregon House at 9185 Marysville Road and at the Ponderosa Community Center in Brownsville located at 17103 Ponderosa Way.
Additional evacuation warnings were issued by the Butte County Sheriff Tuesday afternoon at around 1 p.m. for residents living in the communities of Feather Falls and Clipper Mills. By 3:25 p.m., that warning had been upgraded to an evacuation order.
— Butte County Sheriff (@ButteSheriff) September 8, 2020
Authorities in Yuba County also issued an evacuation order Tuesday afternoon at about 4:30 p.m.
Yuba County Sheriff Department has issued a mandatory evacuation order for residents in the area of La Porte Road and New York Flat Road, north of Brownsville to the county lines at Butte and Plumas.
Anyone living north of that intersection in Yuba County was ordered to evacuate immediately due to the fire currently in Plumas and Butte Counties that was moving towards Yuba County.
The order included the communities of Forbestown, Woodleaf, Clipper Mills and Strawberry Valley.MORE NEWS: Officials Identify Woman Found Dead Inside Vacant Warehouse
More information on the fire can be found on the state’s incident information system website.