CHICO (CBS SF/AP) –Search teams have recovered the remains of two new fire victims, raising the death toll in the North Complex West Zone blaze to 14, authorities announced Sunday night.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea announced the latest recoveries at the nightly update. He did not release any other details. However, Honea did release information about a third victim — Khawar Bhatti — he was a 58-year-old man who died in Berry Creek.
He also said the number of missing has been reduced from 16 to 7.
On Sunday, survivors of the fire told frightening tales of their panicked escape from Berry Creek as the wall of flames roared through early Wednesday. Particularly of encountering a traffic jam on the two-lane bridge leading out of town.
The blaze had 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. Squarely in fire’s path was Berry Creek — an unincorporated town of about 1,200 people.
Among those trying to escape were Misty Spires and her boyfriend, Jonathan Gonzales, who had spent time Tuesday night trying to save their home and other structures with a fire hose from the volunteer fire department hooked up to a hydrant.
But by 4 a.m. Wednesday, they decided it was time to go. Propane tanks began exploding and they were dodging embers “as big as my feet,” Spires told the Associated Press on Sunday.
They didn’t get far before they ran into a jammed two-lane bridge leading out of town.
“It was like a war zone, like standing in the breath of hell,” Spires said.
Sensing that they needed to do something quickly, Spires and her boyfriend guided others to a muddy sandbar north of Lake Oroville. Gonzalez knew the area was clear of trees and close to the water and told the drivers caught in the jam getting out of Berry Creek to follow him.
“He told the others, ‘If you want to live instead of sitting on this bridge follow me,’” she said. “He saved a lot of lives.”
Once there, Spires said most people stayed huddled in their cars. But others got out and consoled each other.
“There wasn’t much that you can say in that situation but to say, ‘I’m glad you’re alive,’” Spires said.
Others were not so lucky. The bodies of at least five fire victims have been found among the rubble of what was once Berry Creek. Honea would not disclose where the other nine bodies had been found.
Honea said 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.
“When I didn’t hear from her, when I woke up, I knew something was wrong,” said Millicent’s daughter Holly. “I knew if my mom had gotten out she would have called us immediately.”
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.
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.
Spires moved from Kansas City to Berry Creek two years ago, drawn to its verdant landscape, creeks and waterfalls that feed into the lake and the mild climate for her mother, who suffers from debilitating arthritis. Her loved ones all survived the blaze, but she mourned the loss of a town she had come to love.
She also mourned the loss of the Sugar Pine Saloon, a 1940s era bar where people in the community had signed their names in the rafters. Spires and her boyfriend were working hard to remodel and reopen it.
“It was a place where the whole community was involved in some way,” she said. “The whole history is just gone.”
By early Sunday, the Bear Creek Fire portion of the North Complex stood at 74,200 acres, was 18 percent contained and had destroyed at least 132 homes and 36 commercial structures.
© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.