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With Bear fire still burning near Oroville, a son’s hope for his mother dwindles

A statue singed by flames sits amid a home destroyed in the Bear fire on Thursday in Feather Falls, a town in Butte County.
A statue singed by flames sits amid a home destroyed in the Bear fire on Thursday in Feather Falls, a town in Butte County.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Zygy Roe-Zurz was in Oklahoma on Friday, but his heart was in Berry Creek, the once-sylvan mountain town now turned to ash by the Bear fire.

His mother, Suzan Violet Zurz, a painter and former model, remained missing from there, and his hope was fraying.

“I can imagine so many scenarios,” he said, speaking by phone. He is beginning to fear the worst, though, as days mount with no word from a parent to whom he is very close, he said.

Suzan Violet Zurz is missing after the Bear Fire near Oroville, Calif.
(Zygy Roe- Zurz)
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Roe-Zurz, a medical student, last spoke with his mom on Tuesday, when she was packing to evacuate with Roe-Zurz’s aunt and uncle, Philip Rubel and Millicent Catarancuic, with whom she shared a house.

But then the trio received information that made them believe the fire was being contained, wind was dying down, and it would be safe to stay, he said. Fire is no stranger to these Northern California hills, where the Sierras meet the Cascade range, and it had bypassed the family before. So they began to unpack.

A day of multiple phone calls gave way to silence.

Then, Thursday night, investigators for the Butte County Sheriff’s Office called his cousin and asked for a DNA sample, he said, to positively identify the remains of his aunt and uncle. They were found in a truck not far from their house, he said, but he does not yet know if his mother was with them. Knowing the fate of two beloved family members is “a relief, but it’s also disturbing that they weren’t all together,” he said.

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“I guess they felt that if there was a change in circumstances they would be able to get out, and that proved to be a fatal error,” Roe-Zurz said. “There are a lot of possibilities. I don’t know what all the facts are fully. ... My mom could have done something different. She was the type of person who would have done her own thing.”

Few communities have endured so many years of wildfire emergencies as Butte County, where residents are weary of yearly blazes, and the death and destruction they bring.

Butte County Sheriff’s officials did not immediately return a call for comment but have previously reported 10 fatalities from the fire and at least 16 missing. Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea asked earlier this week for patience while positive identifications are made, but some family members, like Roe-Zurz, have come forward. On Thursday, the family of Josiah Williams, 16, confirmed they had also been asked for a DNA sample and believed the boy dead.

While families wait for answers and permission to return to the town, where fires still smolder and occasionally flare, smoke sat heavy on the surface of Lake Oroville on Thursday night, blocking the water from view as emergency crews, firefighters and a few locals evading roadblocks made their way up a narrow mountain highway to Berry Creek.

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A 16-year-old boy who lived with his father in Berry Creek is among 10 people killed in the blaze, now among the state’s deadliest.

For most who lived here, their homes are now little more than remnants of everyday items that don’t burn easily: washing machines, brick chimney stacks, concrete garden statues of frogs and angels, though a few still stood, unharmed. By Lake Madrone, on the main road of Berry Creek, a half-dozen unscathed wood homes stood sentinel over the ash-covered water, where frogs splashed among white lotuses. Nearby, two sleek horses, one black and one bay, stood at the fence of a green pasture, well watered, gazing at a burned field just feet away.

By Friday, the North Complex fire had scorched more than 254,000 acres and forced some 20,000 residents in Plumas, Butte and Yuba counties from their homes. Cal Fire spokesman Rick Carhart said that the fire is still active and that firefighters are concentrating on containing it around an area below Berry Creek called Kelly Ridge, that if lost could act as a “gateway” for the fire to reach Oroville. But weather conditions have softened, and firefighters were making progress on containment.

Kendall Hill, 15, sat in a camp chair in a parking lot with his dad Thursday near the turn off to Kelly Ridge, helping friends give out free hot dogs and chips to exhausted first responders, some working nearly round the clock. Hill fled his house in Berry Creek Tuesday night, leaving before flames arrived. His home survived, but some of his family in the area lost theirs.

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“It’s sad, emotional,” he said, exhaustion in his eyes. “They just have to go through it as the days go by.”

His neighbor from Berry Creek, Ginni Weed, sat in a chair next to him, and reached out to touch the teen’s hand. Many from Berry Creek described the isolated village as having a community where everyone was “like family.”

Weed grew up in Berry Creek, raised her kids there, she said. She felt relieved to be passing out food.

“It’s better than sitting home sulking,” she said. “It hurts bad.”

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On Friday, resident Will Cotter began a fundraising drive for another fellow resident: volunteer fire chief Reed Rankin.

Berry Creek volunteer fire chief Reed Rankin lost his home while battling the Bear fire.
Berry Creek volunteer fire chief Reed Rankin lost his home while battling the Bear fire.
(From Will Cotter)

Head of the volunteer department for decades, Rankin has been manning the local station nearly alone since the coronavirus outbreak began and Tuesday night drove through town warning residents to leave while his own home burned, said Cotter.

Cotter said that though his house burned as well, he is insured and “will be fine.” Rankin, though, lacked insurance, he said, and also lost the truck and tools he used for his pump business.

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Rankin is still out fighting the blaze, and Cotter hasn’t been able to reach him since a brief phone call Thursday, but when he learned of Rankin’s loss, “it was the first time I cried through this whole thing,” he said, describing Rankin as “a big gruff guy” who has “been there for everybody all the time.”

“I know everybody needs help, but I mean, this dude who has given so much, we have to help him out,” said Cotter. “He’s old school. He’s not going to ask for anything.”

For Roe-Zurz, Friday was about a place he loved that now exists only in memory, and the people who made it matter. Though he has been in school and traveling abroad, he considers Berry Creek home. He spent June and July in Berry Creek visiting his family, and is thankful he did.

“I am so grateful for that time,” he said, recalling tranquil walks with his mother through the hush of tall pines. “She’s just an incredible spirit.”


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