People in this California town didn’t have much. Then fire took it away
Berry Creek has been many things in its long history — a stagecoach stop, a lumber town, a vacation spot, a gold mining camp. It is home to retirees from crowded, expensive cities, marijuana growers and loners — lots of loners.
Now, Berry Creek has a new and terrible distinction. When the North Complex West Zone fire swept through this wooded enclave about two weeks ago, it killed more people and destroyed more homes here than anywhere else in its destructive path.
Fire Station 61 burned to the ground. Chief Reed Rankin, who heads the volunteer company, lost his home in the blaze. Only one of the seven current or former firefighters still has a house to go back to when evacuation orders are lifted.
Berry Creek Elementary School is a tangle of charred metal and a single red door. The market is gone. The Guild Hall is a memory, although its cream-colored sign still stands on Bald Rock Road inviting residents to play bingo on Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m. There were three churches here on Sept. 7. One remains.
The fire claimed 15 lives. Of the 14 who have been identified, 12 called Berry Creek home. And most of the 1,238 structures destroyed in the fire used to rise along Berry Creek’s twisty gravel roads, on its heavily wooded hillsides, beside its gurgling streams.
Kristal Buchholz lived here, before she and her family were forced to flee late on Sept. 8. They were able to bring just three of their dogs with them, praying the others would survive the heat, smoke and flames.
Buchholz and her boyfriend made a home in her van on her parents’ 20-plus acres. Her mom and stepfather lived in a house on the secluded property. Together they had 13 dogs, among them Buddy, Two Bit, Jake Jr., Goldy, Mia and Chewy.
Buchholz’s stepdad has been here since 1963. He’s a Vietnam vet, 70 years old, stronger and wiser than any boyfriend she’s ever had.
“He doesn’t do well in population with a lot of people,” she said. “He’s able to be a hermit up there. He is able to have his small circle of friends and keep to himself. He knows how to cut wood.”
The 43-year-old moved here three years ago from Idaho to be with her parents. She stayed for them — and because it’s beautiful and quiet and she could grow a little cannabis and stay away from the crowds in “town,” aka Oroville, population 20,000 or so. She has “social anxiety hella tough,” and in Berry Creek, “I don’t have to deal with people.”
Now, she sleeps in her van in the parking lot of a Motel 6. The Red Cross has placed her parents, like dozens of other evacuees, in the motel, along with their dogs. Their property on twisty Gamble Road was destroyed in the blaze. All that remains are the skeletons of burned-out pickup trucks, the husks of torched appliances, piles of rubble.
And, they later learned, the carcasses of four dogs.
“Now that the smoke has cleared a little and things are starting to calm down,” she said in a text Friday morning, “we are faced with a future [that’s] a decision of what to do next. A little lost, a little uncertain. Nothing but time to think about all that’s happened.”
But “the creek is no place for quitters,” she wrote. “That’s how I know Berry Creek will recover — because we have love, camaraderie and believe in our town.”
And just what kind of a place is Berry Creek? If you ask Loren Gill, chairman of the Berry Creek Community Assn.’s executive council, it isn’t a place at all. There is no downtown. Homes are tucked away from the main roads, far from the gaze of those passing through to someplace else.
Sure, “there’s a dot on the map called Berry Creek,” he will tell you. “But it moves around a lot.… Nobody knows where Berry Creek is. Nobody outside of Berry Creek — the flatlanders. It isn’t a place. It’s a ZIP Code.”
Gill disputes population estimates of around 1,200. He says Cal Fire several years back estimated that Berry Creek has around that many houses, which means there could be as many as 4,000 people here. “But I don’t know,” he acknowledges. “I’m guessing.”
Two years ago, the notorious Camp fire burned right up to the edge of ZIP Code 95916. The community was forced to evacuate. The current blaze marks the fourth time in recent years that residents of Berry Creek have had to hightail it out because of wildfire.
That, Gill said, is a problem. But not in the way you might think. Some of the region’s hardy residents have become inured to a threat that never materialized. Until now.
“They didn’t leave as soon as they should,” the 78-year-old retired electrical contractor said. “Even us, we stayed until 10 p.m. [on Sept. 8]. We didn’t see a single firetruck when we left. Heading down the road, as we passed the post office, 27 firetrucks were coming up.”
But by then, much of Berry Creek was burning.
Gill’s house survived the fire, but his garage wasn’t as lucky. Although the volunteer firefighters tried valiantly to save their neighbors’ homes, “it was a disaster.”
Independent-mindedness is a common trait in these parts. The Chico Enterprise-Record did an article in 2008 about residents’ lengthy and arduous efforts to create the Berry Creek Community Assn.
“Part of the reason Berry Creek residents choose to live where they do,” the paper wrote, “is because they are an independent lot, who rebel at being told what to do, even if it is a majority of their neighbors who want to do the telling.”
Berry Creek residents also are not accustomed to asking for help. That became apparent on Friday morning during an emergency meeting convened by Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) to brief the community on what resources are available as it struggles back from disaster.
There was a moment of silence for the men and women who died in the blaze. A handful of requisite jabs by local politicians and the occasional resident at Gov. Gavin Newsom and “Big Government.” Then, Shelby Boston, who is in charge of Butte County’s post-fire shelter and social service efforts, took the microphone.
“I know, right now, you’re probably waking up and wishing it was just a bad dream and you could go back,” she said. “It’s OK. It’s OK to get mad. It’s OK to be sad. And it’s OK to ask for help. Because I know many of you have probably never, ever wanted to receive any assistance from anyone, from the government. But we’re here to help you.”
Many residents will need such help. The population is so small that there’s only one school. Poor enough so that 100% of the school’s 60 or so students received free or reduced-price lunch. And in hazardous enough territory that fire insurance is out of many people’s price range — if it can be had at all.
Rankin, the volunteer fire chief, lives in a part of Berry Creek called Mountain House. His family has roots in Oroville — a 22-mile drive south — going back more than a century. A relative on his mother’s side was the first taxpayer in Butte County after it incorporated in 1850.
He bought the property 40 years ago and built the house himself. He said his insurance company dropped him after the Camp fire laid waste to nearby Paradise, killing 85 people. Rankin has spent every day since the North Complex West blaze began patrolling what’s left of Berry Creek and every night sleeping in a former firehouse there.
He plans to stay on the mountain “till the fire threat’s done,” he said. “I’m going to protect what’s left.”
He is not sure how, but he will remain in Mountain House for the long haul.
“I’m hoping to get some sort of government assistance and rebuild,” he said. “And make it my home like it always has been. With no insurance, it will be hard.”
And then there are renters, like Richard Riley and his extended family. The 59-year-old arrived in Berry Creek about seven years ago. He’d gotten divorced, lost his job at the Park N Sell in Oroville, moved his trailer up to his brother’s property and stayed.
“It’s a beautiful place,” he said. “It’s peaceful, quiet, not town. It’s gorgeous up there — or it was. I could go anywhere on my [all-terrain vehicle]. We had back roads. We could ride everywhere.”
Riley, his two sons, three brothers and four dogs are staying at the Motel 6 in Oroville. For the first week or so, they shared one room with a single bed. On Thursday, another room became available, so they were able to spread out a little.
The fire destroyed the main house on the property, all the sheds, the water-pump house. Riley’s trailer somehow survived. The men don’t know whether their landlord will rebuild. They don’t know how long they will be able to spend in the motel.
During the Camp fire, Riley said, they stayed at his nephew’s house until the danger passed. Then, they were able to return home.
This time, they have no home to go back to.
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