BERRY CREEK — When the Bear Fire crept closer than any fire ever had to Valerie Andrews’ home on the unpaved Encina Grande Road, about two miles from the Oroville Quincy Highway that winds through Berry Creek, she went to the safest place she could think: the bottom of the lake.
There was no swimming required — the water line recedes enough during the dry summer months to leave a bare moonscape in its place. Which is how Andrews found herself sitting in a fold-up chair outside her white Ford pickup truck Thursday, her three small dogs wandering around her, feeling relatively protected even as she watched smoke rise from the burning forest line about half a mile away from her.
“This is the safest spot in California,” Andrews said, gesturing to the rocky dirt that rolled around her makeshift campsite, a few dozen yards from where the water stopped.
She was not the only one. Neighbors who live along Encina Grande and the side streets that sprout off of it had also gone to the lake bottom, formally known as Foreman Creek. Most of their houses, including Andrews’ home, had burned down as the blaze spread rapidly over the ridge and through Berry Creek on Wednesday night.
By Thursday afternoon, many had left, leaving just Andrews and a handful of others. Some young men made trips back and forth to the rural neighborhood to turn off generators; those who had working cell phones tried communicating with people outside. News trickled in about the state of their homes. Most didn’t make it — the fire had burned through the town and was still threatening homes farther up the road.
Andrews and her neighbors knew that once they left the evacuation zone, they wouldn’t be able to get back in, stopped by the law enforcement officers who stand guard at the entry points. Some people know the backroads in, but mostly, it’s difficult.
As of Friday, the North Complex West Zone Fire — previously known as the Bear Fire and part of the larger North Complex Fire — had burned more than 250,000 acres, killing at least nine people and destroying at least 2,000 structures, officials reported. Thousands of people remain under evacuation warnings or orders, and at least 19 people were still unaccounted for on Friday night.
Andrews spent 10 days outside her home when the Camp Fire swept through in 2018. Berry Creek survived that fire, but 10 days of not being able to return was hard on them, she said. People aren’t trying to be risky, she said. They just don’t want to get stuck for a month at shelters or hotels, if their homes are okay.
Many thought their homes would be okay in this fire.
Joseph Bailey, 26, lives up the road from Andrews, off Deer Meadow, with his grandparents. Even as he was leaving the house Wednesday morning, around 7 a.m., he thought it would be a quick return.
“We’ll be back,” he remembered thinking. There had been so many fire warnings in the seven years he’d lived on the property. Bailey even stayed during the Camp Fire — the smoke was bad, but he never felt his life was in danger.
“It’s happened so many times before,” he said of the fires that, until late Tuesday night, had always stayed far enough away.
But for Berry Creek, the Bear Fire was different. Bailey’s trailer and his grandparents’ house were gone. The fire had destroyed everything.
The fire, which had been burning in Plumas County since the August “lightning surge,” hit Butte County on Sept. 8, driven over steep ridges by fierce winds — terrain that makes firefighting difficult. In describing the situation in updates, a memo from CalFire noted that the “eight-mile wide fire front bore down on northeastern Butte County burning over 70,000 acres” by early Wednesday morning.
Firefighters rescued more than 100 people during the day and night as the fire swept through, burning Berry Creek, Feather Falls, Brush Creek and surrounding communities. As of Friday, it was just 23% contained and was still threatening the area, including the city of Oroville.
Residents of Butte County are too familiar with the situation. It was nearly two years ago that the Camp Fire pushed them out in the same way, claiming people’s lives and homes in its all-encompassing conflagration.
So when California State Parks police captain Travis Gee pulled in on Thursday night to check on Andrews and the neighbors at the lake bottom, he seemed to understand what they were feeling. But first responders such as Gee are wary — fire is unpredictable. And after the destruction left by the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people as it leveled the nearby town of Paradise, and the lives claimed so far by this fire, they don’t want to take any chances.
“I watched my house burn in the Camp Fire,” he told Andrews sympathetically as she told him why she wanted to stay inside the evacuation zone until she could get her cats — only she could lure them, she explained.
Gee said his team was thinking ahead — not just about the risk that Andrews and her neighbors could be hurt by the fire, but that first responders would not be able to provide services to help them if, for example, someone had a health emergency.
“We’ve learned a lot from the Camp Fire, and we want to keep you safe,” he said. He promised to help Andrews save her animals so she could get out soon.
Like her neighbors, Andrews had received plenty of evacuation warnings in her 18 years living on Encina Grande Road.
So even when she heard the evacuation order, she stayed put Tuesday evening, using just enough solar power to keep her computer running so she could monitor live updates about the fire. The smoke was so thick that it was easier to see what was happening online than to watch it from the mountain.
She didn’t sleep. At about 5:30 a.m., she knew it was time to go. The fire was about half a mile away, and there was no sign that fire crews were stopping it. Not that she blamed them — she knew that wildfires had ignited all over the state, stretching firefighting resources.
There was fire on both sides of the road, but the wind wasn’t blowing hard, so she made her escape with relative calm and got to the lake bottom. And there she remained, patiently waiting with her community to figure out the next step.
She didn’t really know her neighbors on Encina Grande. Most people went there to find a little bit of solitude, she said. But in a crisis, they pulled together. Sitting there at the lake bottom, neighbors who had become new friends — such as Joseph Bailey’s family — rallied around each other.
When Andrews learned her house was destroyed, Tammy Bailey — Joseph Bailey’s grandmother — who had also lost her home, gave her a sympathetic hug from the side.
“At least the grandkids won’t fight over what they’re inheriting,” Tammy Bailey, who has 18 grandchildren, joked. Still, it was hard on them both. Tammy Bailey shook her head sadly as she noted that all the ducks she kept at her house were now dead.
Andrews loved the rural life dearly. Raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Andrews has lived in the Sierra Nevada foothills her whole adult life, first in Grass Valley, where her daughter still lives, and then in Berry Creek, where she moved while she was caring for her dying husband. It was an inexpensive place to live, and it was beautiful.
She worked as a waitress at the casino in Oroville, making the drive down the treacherous Encina Grande Road five days a week.
“I’m a foothills girl,” she said proudly.
But the fires have changed her mind.
“The Camp Fire really did something to me,” she said. Though her home survived, it was the deadliest example of how scary fires have become in California — and she doesn’t expect it to get better.
“It’s climate chaos,” she sighed. “I’m not a fan of chaos.”
And 2020 has been a year of chaos. In early February, hearing about the virus sweeping through China, she went to town and stocked up, resolving to stay home and avoid town until the virus died down. Seven months later, she was on the lake bottom interacting with more people than she’d seen all year.
As she gets older, her family has urged her to leave the mountain. Now that her house is gone, she may finally heed their wishes and relocate. But the fires, the virus, the general chaos saddens her. She gestured at the smoke billowing from the ridges around her mountain home.
“What are we going to be left with?”