On the day Berry Creek evacuated, 45 mph winds drove the North Complex Fire southwest through the forest town. It killed 12 people and burned nearly every business and home, including the Spradlins’ house. All they have now is a white diesel pickup, some tools, a dirt bike, and their dog. They’re staying in a Motel 6 and spending their days talking to FEMA about cleanup efforts.
FIRE IS A REALITY more and more people living in the West, particularly in California, are expecting, breathing, and fleeing.
Firefighters are currently battling 10 blazes in Oregon, 11 in Washington State, and 24 in California, all part of the worst fire season on record. So far the blazes have torched more than 5 million acres of forest, brush, and grassland.
On Sept. 27 a new wildfire, the Glass Fire, erupted in Northern California’s wine country. Since then, it has burned through 50,000 acres and forced 70,000 people to evacuate.
In California, five of the state’s 10 largest wildfires since officials started keeping records in 1932 are burning this year. The North Complex Fire is one of those.
Butte County has become familiar with large, disastrous fires. In 2018, the Camp Fire torched more than 19,000 structures and killed 85 people in the small town of Paradise, just 13 miles from Berry Creek as the crow flies.
Chris Robins and her family, who lived in Paradise, escaped the fast-spreading flames but lost their home and nearly their entire community in a matter of hours. Now they’re rebuilding their home, and Robins is back working at a charter school in Paradise.
But the threat of another fire never seems far away.
Last month, the North Complex Fire threatened the town again, turning the sky orange and dropping ashes. Robins says ongoing wildfires now send some Paradise residents into panic. More families are moving away from the area and bad memories. “Especially now with these new sets of fires, they can’t. They’re not dealing well,” Robins said.
WILDFIRES MAKE LIFE HARD even for Californians who haven’t experienced one. In recent years, insurance companies have canceled homeowner policies in certain fire danger zones: A quarter of the state’s population lives in one. That led state lawmakers last year to ban insurers from dropping customers in certain ZIP codes for one year. The moratorium covered 800,000 homes.
The state’s power grid operator has conducted planned blackouts in the hot, dry months of late summer and fall, cutting power to thousands of people over fears that electric lines could spark wildfires. Smoke from the fires also worsens air quality.
Retired couple Dan and Chris Gobba live in Chico, a city in Butte County’s agricultural valley. They’ve never had to evacuate because of a fire, but the smoke from blazes in the nearby foothills still reaches them year after year, sometimes keeping them mostly inside for days at a time. During wildfire season, Dan Gobba is quick to get outside on his lawn mower whenever the Air Quality Index measurement is moderately good, because then he “won’t have to wear a mask” to protect him from throat and lung irritation while outdoors.