SACRAMENTO, Calif. – As the flames closed in on tiny Berry Creek in the Sierra Nevada foothills early Wednesday, Misty Spires and her boyfriend hooked a fire hose to a hydrant in a desperate attempt to defend their homes and the town's only laundromat.
They gave up around 4 a.m. when propane tanks began exploding and they were dodging embers “as big as my feet,” she said. But traffic was snarled on the two-lane bridge leading out of town, forcing Spires and others to turn around and drive down a sandbar to escape the flames.
She helped another man load his motorcycle on the back of her pickup truck before sprinting to safety.
“It was like a war zone, like standing in the breath of hell,” she said.
For the second time in two years, fire has destroyed a mountain community in Butte County. Two years ago it was Paradise, where roughly 19,000 buildings were destroyed and 85 people died in the most destructive wildfire in state history.
This time, it was Berry Creek — an unincorporated town of about 1,200 people in the same remote, rolling heavily forested mountains that locals described as a peaceful, close-knit community.
Dozens of wildfires have been burning for weeks across California and the U.S. West, most sparked by lightning strikes. But the North Complex Fire in Northern California surprised fire officials by how quickly it spread after smoldering for weeks in a mostly unpopulated region.
Aided by strong winds, steep terrain and miles of dried out foliage, the fire — more than 8 miles (13 kilometers) wide — quickly roared into Butte County on Tuesday.
This time, Paradise was spared. Smaller mountain communities such as Berry Creek and Feather Falls were quickly overwhelmed. Firefighters scrambled to rescue more than 100 people on Tuesday and early Wednesday.
But they couldn't save everyone.
By Saturday, authorities said the fire claimed 12 lives and another 13 remained missing.
Millicent Catarancuic's 5-acre property in Berry Creek was a rescue shelter of sorts. She had at least four dogs and several cats, many of whom wandered into her yard and never left after finding a loving home.
Her scattered family had seen much tragedy, but in recent years they had mostly settled at her compound in the hills, where it took a 30-minute drive to get anywhere. With her sister, Suzan Violet Zurz, and Phil Rubel, an uncle by marriage, the three lived in quietly, caring for animals and playing the card game FreeCell on a desktop computer.
They were not foolhardy with fires, having voluntarily evacuated for others. Tuesday, they had packed the car and were getting ready to leave when, about 7 p.m., they changed their minds. They were safe, they assured their families.
Authorities would later find Catarancuic's body near a car, along with those of two others. Zurz and Rubel are still listed as missing. But Zurz's son, Zygy Roe-Zurz, fears the worst.
“It's absolutely devastating to find out the people you love are suddenly and horribly gone,” he said. “We lived all over the world and finally settled in a place. So much work and so much thought went into being there and it's, just, all gone.”
Spires and her boyfriend, Jonathan Gonzales, were headed to the muddy sandbar north of Lake Oroville, the largest body of water in the area. 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.
While waiting for daylight, she saw horses and other animals run toward the lake as flames licked the hillsides.
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.”
Nguyen reported from San Francisco.