CHICO (CBS SF) — The death toll of the massive North Complex West Zone fire grew to 12 on Saturday as search teams recovered remains of three new victims among the ruins left behind by the wall of flames that has ripped through the small mountain communities near Lake Oroville.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea made the grim announcement at Saturday night’s fire update. He could not give any additional details about where the bodies were recovered. He said of the 174 calls received by his agency concerning missing individuals, 149 have been found safe. There were 13 people still missing.
The Bear Creek portion of the North Complex stood at 73,000 acres, was 10 percent contained and had destroyed at least 132 homes and 36 commercial structures.
Cal Fire meteorologist Dan Borsun said firefighters were preparing for a dramatic change in weather conditions on late Sunday and on Monday. Winds will pick up, humidity levels will drop and temperatures will rise.
As for damage in the wake of the fire, Cal Fire Deputy Operations Chief Ron Bravo said the communities of Brush Creek, Berry Creek and Feather Falls have been devastated by the blaze.
“Those communities have sustained substantial damage not only from the initial wave but also the continued amount of heat that has been in there,” he said. “When I say damage, I talking about damage to structures, homes, roadways, utilities. There is a lot of significant heat that came through here on that initial push the other night.”
The wildfire traveled 30 miles over an 18-hour stretch after it jumped over the fire lines Tuesday, leaving in its wake a path of death and destruction. The speed of the advance may have been too much for many who were trying to flee the flames.
Officials said 12 people have died in the blaze with another 13 missing. While they would not confirm how many victims were in the Berry Creek area, when Honea released the first two names of fire victims Friday night, he said both were found in and around Berry Creek.
The body of 77-year-old Millicent Catarancuic was discovered near a vehicle. The remains of two other individuals were found nearby but have yet to be identified. Family members fear that they may be Philip Rubel and Suzan Violet Zurz — the relatives Cataranuic was staying with when the fire broke out.
“I guess they felt that if there was a change in circumstances they would be able to get out, and that proved to be a fatal error,” Zurz’s son, Zygy Roe-Zurz, told the Los Angeles Times. “There are a lot of possibilities. I don’t know what all the facts are fully. … My mom could have done something different. She was the type of person who would have done her own thing.”
The other identified victim was 16-year-old Josiah Williams. His mother, Jessica, and other family members had taken to social media hoping he had survived.
“He was alone, terrified and ran for his life,” his mother, Jessica Williams told CBS Sacramento. “My son was a good, smart, caring young boy that died alone and it kills me thinking about what he was going through.”
Honea said two other members of the household where Josiah was staying were able to escape safely.
“It was believed that Josiah was leaving the area in his own vehicle, but it appears he did not make it out,” he said.
Honea said the search for the 19 others who are missing will begin at their last known location, but he added that active fire in the area was preventing deputies and forensic experts from CSU Chico from entering some fire scenes. Additional search and rescue teams from outside the county were also arriving to help.
“Right now, the areas we need to search as just too hot,” he said. “Cal Fire has asked us to wait to deploy those later when it is safe for it to be done.”
Elsewhere Berry Creek residents were dealing with the loss of homes and businesses. The Village Market, which was the only store in town and a community gathering place, has been reduced to a pile of charred rubble.
“I cried. I cried for long time,” said Village Market owner Mitch Dorghalli, when he heard his store was destroyed. “(It was) the worst day in my life when I heard that news.”
The elementary school, the fire station, homes were all destroyed.
Local resident Will Cotter hopes the community will somehow rebuild.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” he said. “But I’m hopeful that will be able to get some of that flavor back in Berry Creek.”
If Cotter needed some encouragement, all he needed to do was look at Butte County towns of Paradise and Concow, both nearly destroyed in the 2018 Camp Fire, a firestorm that claimed 85 lives.
Before the fire, Paradise averaged about 25 to 30 new homes built per year, according to Vice Mayor Steve Crowder. As of Wednesday, the town has issued 1,051 building permits for single-family homes and 345 of them are built.
With so much demand, Paradise hired a private company to act as the city’s building department, which they set up in a building donated by Bank of America.
Steve Oehler moved to Paradise six months before the 2018 fire and has since rebuilt and moved back.
“Paradise was built by pioneers,” he said. “The people that are coming back are the pioneers of 2020. They’re the people that are taking nothing and turning it into something.”