As the massive North Complex fire sped across Plumas, Butte and Yuba counties this week, tens of thousands of residents rushed to escape. Some were unable to flee in time.
Justin Williams and his two sons were at home in Berry Creek when the fire exploded Wednesday. As Williams hopped in one car to check on family in the area, he said that Josiah, 16, and his older brother, who had been visiting from Indiana, were supposed to leave in their respective cars.
When Williams reached the bottom of the hill and realized the two hadn’t escaped, he tried desperately to drive back to the house. But he was stopped by police and redirected to nearby Highway 70. Every road was blocked.
Williams finally reached his older son, Jason, by phone. But Josiah never called.
When the boy couldn’t be found, his aunts and mother posted pleas on social media, begging for anyone with information to call them or contact the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.
The family received the harrowing news around 9 p.m. Thursday: Josiah’s remains had been identified using DNA that matched Williams’.
The teen, affectionately known as JoJo, is among 10 people killed in the sprawling North Complex blaze, which includes the Bear fire and is among the deadliest in state history.
As of Friday morning, it had burned 252,534 acres. An additional 16 people have been reported missing in the area of the fire, which was 23% contained as of Friday morning.
“He was a good, quiet boy,” Williams said about his younger son, who acted older than his age. “He was smart, just trying to find his spot in this world.”
Josiah’s mom, Jessica Williams, was not immediately available for comment. But she shared a grief-stricken message on Facebook.
“I’m so sorry son I wasn’t there to protect you,” she wrote.
Josiah’s body was among seven found Thursday as fire officials searched through pockets where the fire had burned. The bodies of three other Butte County residents were found the day before, Sheriff Kory Honea announced. The remains of two people were found at one location; the other body was found elsewhere, officials said.
“We are deeply heartbroken and numb,” Josiah’s aunt Bobbie Zedaker said Thursday night. “I was hoping to receive good news, but today has been the worst day of my life. I lost my hometown, my home is gone, and my nephew is gone. He didn’t deserve this. He deserved a long and happy life.”
In Josiah’s Facebook profile, a photo from December shows a boy wearing a smirk and a cap standing in front of a group of trees. Plastered below him reads the hashtag, “Never Give Up.”
Times staff writer Alejandra Reyes-Velarde contributed to this report.