Desperate search for missing as death toll rises to 12 in Butte County
Every Wednesday afternoon, Mark Holder would get on the phone from his home in Tennessee and call his brother Larry Holder in Berry Creek in the mountains of Butte County.
Cell phone reception was spotty in the mountains so Larry, 61, would drive about a mile away from his five-wheel trailer off Bay Ranch Road, near Village Market, and pull over on a turnout lane where he could get better service.
But there was no call this past week. Now, Larry Holder is among the more than 20 people still missing after the North Complex fire swept into the rural hamlets of this Northern California region, killing at least 12 and destroying hundreds of structures. Officials announced Saturday that the remains of three more people were found.
Mark Holder, who lived in Berry Creek until December, is trying to get his head around the destruction but still holds out hope that his brother is alive.
“One particular feature of my brother is that he is a survivor,” he said.
As firefighters struggled to get a handle on multiple massive wildfires in Northern California on Saturday, a grim search was underway for survivors — and more likely remains — among the missing.
The true death toll likely won’t be known for days, officials cautioned, as heat and flames prevented authorities from entering some areas to search.
“There are still some areas that they are looking into but they have not been able to get into due to the fire activity that’s going on,” said Capt. Bruno Baertschi, public information officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Since the start of the year, California wildfires have burned more than 3.2 million acres, an area larger than Connecticut, according to Cal Fire. Nineteen people have died and more than 4,000 structures have been destroyed since mid-August. More than 60,000 people have been forced from their homes.
The devastation prompted an announcement from the White House that President Trump will visit California on Monday to be briefed by emergency officials.
Many of the state’s dead and missing were in the area ravaged by the North Complex fire, which had burned 252,313 acres across three counties and was 21% contained as of Saturday morning.
The fire had been crawling for weeks through the Plumas National Forest and was more than half-contained Tuesday, when it jumped the Middle Fork of the Feather River and barreled into mountain communities in Butte County before residents could flee.
Among the dead were Josiah Williams, 16, who was trying to drive out of the flames, and Millicent Catarancuic, 77, who decided not to evacuate, authorities said. Catarancuic’s partner, Philip Rubel, is also believed to have died.
The skies around the Bay Area and other parts of Northern California took on an eerie glow as smoke from several fires enveloped the region.
Holder knew both of the victims.
“They were all friends of mine,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”
For the past three days, Heather Kilgore, a friend of the family, has turned to Twitter to post photos of Larry Holder, described as stocky with long brown hair and a white burly goatee.
“He has a lot of tattoos, mostly of dragons,” Holder said of his missing brother. “He has them all over on his arms, legs and torso.”
Mark Holder said his brother would have fled either on his mid-'90s black Harley Davidson or in a gray Chevrolet truck.
He said his brother, a truck hauler, suffered a brain injury from a traffic accident that has made it difficult for him to retain information sometimes. It’s partly the reason he moved to Berry Creek. He said his brother enjoyed being around nature and living alone.
When Mark Holder heard about the deaths of his former neighbors, he immediately thought about his brother.
“Group of people who lived in the same neighborhood and dealing with the same health issues.”
For now, the family has been waiting anxiously for any news about his whereabouts.
“We were in touch with Butte County Sheriff’s Office and they’re searching today,” Holder said. “It comes down to today.”
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Friday that he’s requested that urban search and rescue teams be deployed to help his department scour hamlets where the fire burned.
“Right now, the areas we need to search are too hot and Cal Fire has asked us to wait to deploy those later when that is safe to be done,” he said during a news briefing. “So we’re going to be evaluating that deployment starting on Monday.”
Deadly fires were also burning across other Western states.
In Oregon, fires had scorched more than 1 million acres and killed at least six people, including a 13-year-old boy who died in a car with his dog in his lap, according to an online fundraising page. Family members believe the child was trying to save his grandmother, who also died.
Officials say they’re bracing for more bodies to be recovered.
“We know we’re dealing with fire-related deaths and we’re preparing for a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the number of structures lost,” Andrew Phelps, director of Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management, said Friday at a press briefing.
In Washington, fires burned more than 600,000 acres and resulted in the death of a 1-year-old boy, authorities said.
California’s North Complex fire was sparked by lightning Aug. 17 but mushroomed in size this week, forcing some 20,000 residents in Plumas, Butte and Yuba counties to evacuate.
Firefighters reported no significant growth in acreage overnight into Saturday as they worked to hem the blaze in by conducting firing operations.
“We build containment lines to join parts of the fire or a fire’s edge to a road or river or something like that,” said Sean Collins, public information officer for California Interagency Incident Management Team 4. “And then from that we put a little bit of fire on the ground to enable it to create a buffer between that containment line or road and the main body of the fire.”
About 3,282 personnel were battling the fire. Their fight was hampered by steep terrain and weather conditions that were causing the smoke to linger, preventing aircraft from dropping water, Collins said.
“The smoke is being blown back over the fire which gives poor air quality to residents and firefighters and prevents aircraft from flying,” he said. “But the winds will be picking up from the west over the next couple of days, which should improve air quality and visibility.”
On the fire’s western flank, firefighters were scrambling to strengthen containment lines ahead of the shift in the winds, which they said could also pose problems.
“Monday is obviously going to be one of our trigger points because we are going to see a change in the weather,” Baertschi said. “The smoke may lift out and we’re going to get more sun and heating onto the vegetation, which could bring up fire activity.”
Fire officials had no estimate for when the fire would be contained.
“We’ll be here continuing to work on this for some time,” Baertschi said.
The North Complex fire is California’s deadliest so far this year and the 11th-deadliest in state history.
In addition, five deaths have been linked to the LNU Lightning Complex fire, which had burned 363,220 acres across the North Bay counties of Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Colusa, Solano and Yolo and was 95% contained as of Saturday morning.
Two bodies were found earlier this week near Happy Camp, where about 150 homes were destroyed by the Slater fire, the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office said. The fire has chewed through more than 122,000 acres in Siskiyou and Del Norte counties and across the border into Oregon.
One death has been confirmed in the CZU Lightning Complex fire, which has burned 86,509 acres and destroyed 1,490 structures in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties. Tad Jones, 73, was found last month in the remote community of Last Chance in the Santa Cruz mountains, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office said. Authorities believe he was trying to escape the flames when he died.
The state’s death toll also includes a firefighter who died in a vehicle accident while battling the August Complex fire in the Mendocino National Forest last month, and a pilot who died in a helicopter crash in Fresno County while on a water-dropping mission for the Hills fire.
In Southern California, the Bobcat fire had burned a 29,245-acre swath through the Angeles National Forest and was 6% contained as of Saturday morning.
The eastern and western flanks of the fire were entering into old burn scars, which tends to reduce the rate of spread, officials said, but other areas being charred hadn’t burned in 60 years. Firefighters were continuing to focus on beefing up containment lines to the south to keep the fire from spreading down into foothill communities.
The El Dorado fire near Yucaipa had burned 14,043 acres and was 39% contained as of Saturday morning. In San Diego County, the Valley fire near the Mexican border was at 17,665 acres and was 69% contained, according to Cal Fire.
Poor air quality from the fires continued to choke residents throughout the region. The Los Angeles Zoo announced it would close Sunday and Monday because of unhealthy air. Zoo officials said they were monitoring animals who live outside and veterinary staff were prepared to respond if the air caused health issues.
Vives reported from Oroville, Calif., and Wigglesworth reported from Los Angeles. Rong-Gong Lin II in San Francisco and Doug Smith in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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