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Her sister was lost in a California firestorm. How they were finally reunited

Burned vehicles sit Friday in front of a home destroyed in the North Complex fire.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

For Michelle Rancour-Aldridge, the panic began Tuesday night.

After she left her pottery class that evening, she heard that residents of Berry Creek — a hilly area not far from Paradise, Calif., the town largely destroyed by flames in the 2018 Camp fire — had been ordered to evacuate. She immediately dialed her sister’s landline.

The phone was disconnected.

“I’m going to go up there,” Rancour-Aldridge, 50, said she thought to herself. She was determined to find her sister, Kelly Burke, 49.

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She was one of many family members desperately trying to find loved ones who lived in the rural communities of Butte County that were burned by the North Complex fire.

Kelly Burke, far right with family members from left; Barbara Breding, Amber Warren, Chelsea Vonarmfelt, and Burke.
(Michelle Rancour-Aldridge)

The fire moved so fast that some people could not get out in time. It burned hundreds of homes in hamlets such as Berry Creek. The death toll Sunday rose to 14 as two more bodies were recovered.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said seven people are still missing and officials are working to locate them.

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Rancour-Aldridge hopped into her truck Tuesday and drove to the base of a nearby mountain, but a sheriff’s deputy stopped her. It made sense, Rancour-Aldridge thought, given the history of the area — the way Paradise turned into a deathtrap in 2018.

Still, Rancour-Aldridge was terrified.

Even as she evacuated from her own home in Palermo, about an hour south, around midnight Wednesday, her mind raced with thoughts of her sister.

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“All kinds of scenarios were playing out in my head,” she said. “But I know my sister really well. If she is told to leave, she leaves.”

Eventually, Rancour-Aldridge got hold of one of her sister’s neighbors, who told her she’d seen Burke evacuating from the area with a friend.

By Thursday, still without word from her sister, Rancour-Aldridge decided to return to pottery class to distract her racing mind, but she couldn’t stop thinking about her free-spirited sister. She thought about the Berry Creek home Burke had lived in for 25 years, where she had raised seven children.

The next day, Rancour-Aldridge’s daughter had an epiphany: They had forgotten to call local hospitals. When she dialed Oroville Hospital, she learned that Burke had been admitted a few hours earlier — not for smoke inhalation or burns, but for kidney stones.

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Rancour-Aldridge rushed to the hospital to see her sister, who, she later learned, had helped other neighbors prepare to evacuate before fleeing down the mountain.

Her sister told her an unpaid phone bill was the reason the landline wasn’t working. But Burke has larger worries because her home, as well as the homes of two of her children, were ultimately lost to the fire, said Rancour-Aldridge, who started a GoFundMe account to raise money toward rebuilding. When she told her sister she’d started the account, Burke said she would do anything to return to her home in the mountains.

“I don’t care if I live in a tent,” her sister said.

“Oh, Kelly, you can’t go back,” she told her sadly. “That place is cooked.”


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