BERRY CREEK, Butte County They found the man along a hot stretch of highway, 11 miles northeast of Bidwell Bar Bridge, which had been cast orange by the fire. He was past the Oroville Dam, nearly splintered three years earlier by record rainfall, and past shallow Lake Madrone, where the man might have sought refuge, as other people have done in other pools, from other fires.
By the time the firefighters found him, just before 8 a.m. on Sept. 9, the man had probably been lying facedown near the highway for hours. The soles of his white running shoes were melted, his shoelaces still smoldering. His T-shirt and blue jeans hung off his frame in tatters. So did his skin.
More than 60% of his body was covered in burns, his features indiscernible because of his injuries. He could have been anyone in Butte County, a place where climate-change-fueled disasters have increasingly claimed not just homes but the lives of residents.
Since 1999, 20 big wildfires have battered Butte, a collection of rural towns 70 miles north of Sacramento. In the last decade alone, blazes have burned 30% of the county, and in 2017 severe winter storms nearly ruptured the nations tallest dam. The biggest heartbreak came in 2018, when the Camp Fire raced into Paradise and killed 85 people.
Crosses honor those who died in the Camp Fire.
Buttes small cities and hideaway towns were still reeling from the pandemic and power shut-offs last week when a handful of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes merged and exploded to 218,000 acres overnight. The man near the highway, like so many others in Butte, was caught off-guard as disaster visited once more. By Thursday, this fire would claim 15 lives, making it Californias deadliest this year.
If the man by the highway had a chance at living, the firefighters would have to get him medical attention right away. They needed to hustle him to the burn unit at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento but the massive North Complex Fire blocked the route. They would need to find another way.
So they steered through flames toward Station 62, a firehouse in remote Berry Creek. There, paramedics had staged what they called a casualty collection point for burn victims. Over the next three hours, the small station would become a field hospital, triaging more and more fire victims as they stumbled or were carried out of the burning woods.
As they drove, the firefighters tried to talk with the man in the white sneakers, to find out who he was. He struggled to answer, his throat too scorched to speak.
Two days earlier, Sean Normans cell phone rang. It was the evening of Sept. 7, and he had just arrived at his home in Grass Valley in Nevada County, after a three-week stint on a wildfire in the South Bay. Now, his supervisors were on the line. They told the battalion chief his team was being deployed to the North Complex Fire formerly the Bear and Claremont fires.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Sean Norman is used to battling fires, but found himself overseeing the field hospital at Station 62.
The next afternoon, Normans supervisors called again with an update: The complex might reach Lake Oroville that evening 15 miles away from the flaming front.
These days, not much surprises Norman, who is 49 and has been with Cal Fire for three decades. In 1993, the year he joined the state agency, Norman watched about 300,000 acres of California burn. The damage had seemed massive at the time; now, that acreage amounts to one-tenth of the 3.3 million acres charred this year.
Norman has fought the biggest and most vicious wildfires in state history, from the recent Camp Fire to the CZU Lightning Complex in the South Bay. Hes watched these infernos escalate, particularly in Butte.
Few counties in California have burned and flooded and endured as much as Butte. Since 2011, the governor has issued a dozen disaster declarations here, including two in 2017 for the Ponderosa and the Wall fires. That same year, California saw an average rainfall of 30.75 inches record-breaking precipitation that trailed a historic six-year drought, indicative of a climate boomeranging that scientists have long sirened.
After the crumbling Oroville Dam spillway threatened to plunge the northern Sacramento Valley under a 30-foot wall of reservoir water, Sheriff Kory Honea ordered a massive evacuation from the floodplain. About 188,000 people in the county of 219,000 were told to flee.
What did we do wrong? mused county Supervisor Steve Lambert, 54, on a recent morning. Who has the voodoo doll and why are they mad at us? I dont know anyone else that has had fires as big as weve had. I dont know anyone else that has had a big dam that failed. Its painful.
Water roars down the reconstructed spillway at Oroville Dam last year.
Decades of disasters have left deep scars in Butte, a county populated by farmers, blue-collar workers and professionals who staff area hospitals and the state university in Chico. Seemingly everyone has been affected in one way or another, particularly the 20,000 families whose homes have been destroyed.
But on this Tuesday afternoon in early September, even Norman couldnt anticipate the destruction his community would soon encounter. At 3 p.m., as he finished speaking with his supervisors, CodeRed evacuation orders were being issued to cell phones across the county.
Two tiny hamlets, Feather Falls and Berry Creek, were on the list to evacuate. Nestled in the foothills of eastern Butte County, they had always been challenging places to navigate. Dirt and gravel roads braided the hillsides, homes tucked deep into the forest. Its people include retirees, timber workers, marijuana growers and others who relished the isolation of nature.
Still, the small community came together for the yearly berry festival, with its prized blackberry pies, and yoga classes, held every Wednesday morning in a local guild hall on Bald Rock Road, the main access route into town.
By 8:44 p.m., Cal Fires air attack was reporting a rapid rate of spread on the fire. Normans radio traffic picked up.
The lodge at Camp Okizu, which for 38 years had been a safe haven for children with cancer and their families, was on fire. A vehicle crashed on Bald Rock Road. A woman jumped on a horse to evacuate, carrying her dog. Embers blew on the wind and spotted into Feather Falls where the Ponderosa Fire had blazed just three years before then blitzed 8 miles to the Enterprise Area Boat Ramp on Lake Oroville.
Burn victims began showing up at Station 62.
Camp Okizu, which gave kids with cancer and their families a respite, was destroyed by the North Complex Fire.
As the flames pushed toward the firehouse, Norman had one thought: Ill be incinerated. Two years earlier, the Camp Fire, as bad as it was, had seen houses break up the fire front, creating pockets of safe space for people to wait out the blaze. But now, Butte faced an unbroken wall of flames that snapped timber like toothpicks.
The battalion chief knew he wasnt playing checkers. This was chess, and he had to be three moves ahead. He worked the radio from his Cal Fire-issued truck, writing down the addresses of people who had called 911. He would try to locate them later, once it was safe.
Norman was thinking about his own wife and two young children back in Grass Valley to the east. Bordering Tahoe National Forest, that citys foothills location and strong seasonal winds make it so flammable that the local movie theater plays fire preparedness trailers before the main showings. Norman hoped that someone would help his family as he was doing now for others if his city ignited while he was away.
Just after 4 a.m. on Sept. 9, the flames briefly abated as the fire front passed a lucky window in which he and his colleagues might get to work. Norman instructed his firefighters to begin chopping open the main roads, blocked by downed pine. One of the first places they checked was Wailaki Court, where Sandra and John Butler, 75 and 79, had told dispatchers they were sheltering in a pond. Deputies found their remains.
Consulting his list, Norman worked his way three miles down Bald Rock Road, picking up burn victims as he went. He came upon two older women with ash-streaked faces, sitting on the ground with their dogs and struggling to breathe. Soon after, he found a man with burns on his hands and feet. Then, he directed another driver, whose passenger was badly burned, to Station 62.
Reminders of the inferno that swept through the tiny Butte County community of Berry Creek include a singed sign, left, and burned decor on Bald Rock Road.
Just two names remained on his list. But it was nearing 8 a.m. and the fire was picking up again. On the radio, 911 dispatchers reported people trapped at a nearby intersection. A firefighter requested a boat rescue for a few residents sheltering in place at the end of Craig Access Road.
Around that time, a firefighter in charge of a strike team five engines led by an SUV messaged that they had located the badly burned man on the shoulder of Oro-Quincy Highway.
Not only was he the most badly burned victim they had found that morning, but his wounds had begun to clot, making it clear he had been there for some time. And the shocking discovery had come at the worst time. The highway, the path back back to the firehouse, was aflame.
The firefighter said the man needed an ambulance as soon as possible.
Were going to try and load the victim, he said, and get him to Station 62.
Station 62 had opened at the intersection of the highway and Berry Creek Road in April 2008. The one-engine post served Harts Mill and the surrounding communities, helping out the Berry Creek Volunteer Company, whose members staff nearby stations 60 and 61. It is normally a sleepy though fire-prone area.
Now, as the fires raged, paramedics at the Berry Creek station tried to calm the two elderly women who couldnt breathe. They checked their throats to make sure their airways were clear. This was the unspeakable way that people sometimes died in a wildfire, roasting from the inside out.
Jonathan Taft, 35, unboxed medical supplies. The paramedic had worked with First Responder EMS for three years. After a decade in the military, including two deployments to Iraq, he felt compelled to give medicine a try. The field had interested him since his childhood in nearby Magalia, which had also been overrun by the Camp Fire.
For two hours, Taft had been treating burn patients on a padded exercise mat. A large American flag was pinned to the wood-paneled wall, and racks of basketballs and kettlebells lined the space. On normal days, this was where firefighters squatted and lifted dumbbells during downtime.
Now, the padded mat was a hospital bed. Taft dressed one mans burned hands and feet, then turned to help two more patients: one with burns to the face, another with scorched arms and legs. He wrapped each person in a burn sheet a sterile, laminated blanket to keep them warm.
It was 85 degrees that day, but the injured were shivering with cold. Skin regulates the bodys temperature; the burn victims didnt even have the shelter and comfort of their own bodies. Thankfully, Tafts three patients were soon on their way to the burn center at UC Davis. He just needed to wait and prepare for the man in the white running shoes.
Across the road from the station, two houses ignited, everyone flinching with each bang. Norman had wanted to keep two dozen evacuees away from the makeshift hospital in the garage, so he brought them into an office. They chatted and held their pets as they passed the time, waiting for the conflagration to pass over. They watched through the window as the engine arrived with the badly burned man.
An inmate firefighter crew waits for instructions on the North Complex Fire lines in Butte County.
Firefighters carried him into the garage. Taft gently set him on the mat and helped to strip off his clothing, snipping apart his shoes. As Taft worked, the mans skin sloughed off in sheets. He had suffered third-degree burns, meaning the fire had scorched his nerve endings.
Even if he made it to the hospital, he might not survive. And with fire sweeping across the foothills once again, Taft knew it was wishful to think he would even make it that far.
Still, Norman asked the command post for the quickest possible way to get the man downhill. The air ambulance wouldnt be available until 10 a.m., a firefighter responded on the radio. It was 8:28 a.m.
This guy doesnt have much time, Norman replied, so whatever we gotta do to fix it, then lets get it fixed.
The man began to speak, but in Spanish. Norman quickly found a colleague who was fluent to help explain to the man what was happening, to get some of his information. But the man soon lost consciousness.
It felt like everything was deteriorating. Taft, unable to find a vein to start an intravenous line, drilled a needle into the marrow of the mans leg bone, hoping to stabilize him. A second paramedic stood above with the intravenous bag.
The man labored to breathe, then could no longer do it on his own. With an Ambu-Bag resuscitator, the paramedic forced air into his lungs.
This makeshift triage wasnt built for sustained medical care; Taft and Norman knew that. At best, it was a stopgap until a patient could get to a hospital.
Embers light up a hillside behind the Bidwell Bar Bridge as the Bear Fire burns in Butte County this month.
Nearly 40 minutes had passed since the man had arrived at Station 62. The medical locker had been drained of vital supplies. Smoke gathered along the ceiling. It was hard for anyone, even the uninjured, to breathe.
This is a war, Norman found himself thinking. Im in a war zone right now.
Norman had suggested a California Highway Patrol chopper, but helicopters couldnt reach Berry Creek through the gales. An ambulance would have to transport the man to the airport in Oroville, then onward to UC Davis by air.
Already, a strike team of engines was working its way uphill. They needed to make sure the ambulance could arrive safely, without breaking down on the hot pavement. The team watered down the highway, mile by mile.
The ambulance pushed through the fire and parked at Station 62. A set of paramedics loaded the man through the back doors and sped off.
To survive, the man whose fate was unknown as of Friday, but who did not match the official descriptions of any fatalities from Butte County would have to travel back through the flames again, over the orange-hued Bidwell Bar Bridge, away from shallow Lake Madrone and past Lake Oroville, all billboards for what the county had already endured.
Only this time, an escort of fire engines led the way.
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