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A deadly blaze in Berry Creek

While West Coast residents flee wildfires, experts scrutinize the region’s fire suppression policies

A deadly blaze in Berry Creek

Flames shoot from a window as a wildfire burns through the Berry Creek area of Butte County, Calif. (Noah Berger/AP)

William Spradlin could smell, hear, and feel the fire approaching. Around 11 p.m., the resident of Berry Creek, Calif., called his neighbors to see if they thought it was time to leave town.

“The sky was changing so many different colors,” he said. “The roar of it. It was like five freight trains.”

Earlier that day, Sept. 8, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office had issued an urgent, mandatory evacuation order for Spradlin’s small town, about 90 miles north of Sacramento. While most Berry Creek residents fled west, out of the Sierra Nevada foothills and into the valley, Spradlin and his adult son Michael had decided to stay behind and try to protect their home. 

Now, Spradlin’s neighbor said it was time to get out of the hills if they wanted to live. Spradlin and Michael rushed to leave the house so quickly Michael put his Levi jeans on backward. He only discovered the mistake hours later when he went to reach for his wallet. 

Three weeks before Berry Creek burned, lightning sparked fires throughout Butte County’s Sierra Nevada foothills and canyons. Firefighters were able to extinguish all except three fires, which fed on dry trees, pine needles, and shrubs and eventually joined together to become the North Complex Fire. 

Sarah Schweinsberg

Michael Spradlin, neighbor Kathy Sheldon, and William Spradlin (from left to right) (Sarah Schweinsberg)

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.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

The sun rises over California’s smoke-filled sky in Kern County, Calif. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Experts blame the recent wildfires’ size and severity on both a changing climate and poor forest management—or a lack of management—by state and federal officials.

Stephen Pyne is an environmental historian at Arizona State University. He says today’s big burns are the result of years of suppressing wildfires and allowing the buildup of bone-dry brush and trees. “We have a great fire deficit,” he said. 

At the same time, climate scientists say several years of West Coast drought have killed plants and trees, creating more fire fuel. Average temperatures have also climbed by 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century, leaving dead vegetation drier and more flammable. 

Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate researcher at Stanford University, says dealing with wildfires will require looking at all contributing factors: “The fuels matter. The conditions of the vegetation matters, and forestry management.”

Some researchers believe wildfires once burned through 5 million to 12 million acres in California every year. Native Americans manipulated the environment to protect themselves from the fires while still letting them blaze to keep forests healthy. As white settlers arrived in the state, they learned from Native Americans and used fire to clear the land for building and agriculture. 

Views of fire began to change as settlement on the West Coast expanded. In the summer of 1910 a series of fires swept over Idaho, Montana, and Washington, burning more than 5 million acres and destroying several small towns. The U.S. Forest Service lost 78 firefighters to wildfire flames in one day. “It traumatized the agency,” Pyne said. 

Afterward, the young U.S. Forest Service began seeing wildfires as a threat. The agency adopted policies to defeat wildfires and stop people from starting them. Wildfire prevention and suppression policies led to the creation of Smokey the Bear, wildfire watch towers in the backcountry, and the disappearance of controlled burns to maintain the health of the forest and eliminate plant buildup. 

In the 1960s, Pyne said, scientists and officials began to recognize the harm those policies had done. Wildfires eliminate dead or unhealthy trees that attract insects and pests. They also thin out trees and shrubbery, eliminate plant competition for water, and incinerate the dangerous buildup of fire fuels that can create long, hot fires trees can’t handle.

GOING BACK TO CONTROLLED BURNS and more forest maintenance in California has proved difficult. Landowners and state and federal officials fear controlled burns could get out of hand. Extensive state and federal regulations and limited funding are also obstacles. 

The challenges are obvious when you compare California’s controlled burns with those in other states: In 2017, Florida burned 2.2 million acres, while California torched just 50,000 acres. One paper published in January 2020 estimated California would need to burn an area roughly the size of Maine to take care of its prescribed burn backlog. 

Craig Thomas is the founder of the Fire Restoration Group, which promotes the wider use of controlled burns. In a densely populated state like California, Thomas says, fire suppression is still needed, but “if we don’t put fire-lighting back in the tool bag ... we’re in for a hard time.” 

Thomas hopes ongoing wildfires will push property owners living in fire danger zones to fire-proof their homes. Living in a flammable forest takes additional property maintenance like thinning trees, raking up pine needles, and clearing a defensible, tree-free zone around a home. But because of decades of fire suppression and poor statute enforcement by city and county officials, many residents don’t know that. 

Sometimes fire maintenance still can’t save a home. The Robinses in Paradise say they always made sure they kept a tree-free zone around their house and kept brush piles picked up. But many neighbors did not. As the town rebuilds, city officials are working to thin the trees in and around Paradise.  

New efforts to improve forest management across the state are in the works. In August, California officials signed an agreement with the federal government to encourage state and federal agencies to work together. They’ll implement more managed fires, work to thin forests, and streamline regulations. And in May, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced a bill that would provide additional funding to help the Forest Service catch up on forest maintenance.

Meanwhile, fire survivors William and Michael Spradlin say they will rebuild their lives in Berry Creek. Wildfires are a danger they’re willing to live with in the place they call home.

—This story has been updated to correct the date of the start of the Glass Fire.

Sarah Schweinsberg

Sarah Schweinsberg

Sarah is a news and feature reporter for WORLD Radio and WORLD Watch. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern College graduate. Sarah resides with her husband, Zach, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Follow her on Twitter @SarahSchweins.