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‘Hell or high water’: Oroville residents struggle with another disaster

Leanne Beck did everything she could to guard against wildfire.

She and her husband Mike moved into their 40-acre refuge below Oroville Lake just after the Swede’s Flat fire of 2013. Their property was right on the char line where the state had laid a backfire to stop the wildfire in its tracks.

In the following four years they cut brush and did their best to build a defensible space.

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So on Friday, Beck and her husband hung tight when Butte County deputies drove through with loudspeakers and ordered the evacuation of a large swath of mountain properties along Chinese Wall Road. On Saturday morning, Leanne and Mike stood at the top of their property and watched bulldozers cut a corral around the eastern edge of the growing fire.

But when the ridge itself exploded in flames later Saturday afternoon, the couple packed up the dogs and fled.

We’ve been sitting here for three days, not knowing, and now, you don’t want to know.

— Leanne Beck

On Monday morning, at the Red Cross shelter in Oroville, Beck stood stunned by the news a weeping neighbor had given her. Their double-wide had been turned to cinders.

“I feel like I’m 102 right now,” said Beck, a 60-year-old retiree whose husband still works at a software job. The couple was unsure what to do next. “We’ve been sitting here for three days, not knowing, and now, you don’t want to know.”

State emergency responders said Monday that 17 structures so far have been destroyed by the uncontained Wall fire, and five others have been damaged. Thousands of Butte County residents were under evacuation orders. Many of their properties bordered the area where residents were forced leave in winter when the spillway of the Oroville Dam threatened collapse.

“We have a joke about Oroville,” said Red Cross shelter manager Pam Deditch, a local resident who during non-emergencies works as a behavioral health counselor for the county. “Here, it’s hell or high water.”

She chuckled at the dark humor. Her own house is in a voluntary evacuation zone.

Some 115 people remained at the shelter Monday morning, where evacuees could watch the fire’s progress from the parking lot. (Fire maps showed the eastern side of the Wall fire had been stopped, but the fire remained untamed on its long western boundary, where it threatened 5,400 homes.)

As she spoke, Beck’s eyes began to water but she blinked back the tears and laughed at what she and her husband had grabbed when they left their house for the last time.

It was a weed cutter, still boxed, and too late to put to work cutting tall grass and brush that might help a fire take hold and spread.

Her thought at that moment: “maybe I can return this.”

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

For updates and more, follow @paigestjohn.

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