In scorched Northern California, a town is hollowed out, evacuees are isolated, resources are strained

The Bear Fire (North Complex West Zone Fire) has killed 10 people in Butte County, and many others remain unaccounted for. The fire began in mid-August from a lightning strike, then flared up again this week because of dry and windy conditions.

San Francisco Chronicle reporter Alexei Koseff just returned from Butte County. In the town of Berry Creek, there’s not much left. He describes, “Driving through the main route through town, there were charred trees, empty lots where nothing much was left other than crumpled metal, maybe some chimneys here and there, burned out cars. And there were downed power lines everywhere. And then every so often, you’d see a house that appeared almost untouched by the flames. And the local church actually as well made it through. So it was a strange sight to see this town hollowed out and then just a few little pockets of things left.”

He says many people who left for Butte County evacuation centers had fled the Camp Fire when it burned Paradise, California in 2018. “They left as quick [sic] as possible basically, as soon as they got the evacuation warnings this week because they didn’t want to end up in the same situation as residents in Paradise did. They were terrified of getting stuck on the road in traffic and dying. So that sort of trauma is very, very real for people in this part of the state.”

As people go to evacuation centers, how is COVID-19 fitting into it all? Koseff says it feels like everyone is on their own this year. “In years past, you might show up to an evacuation center, there’d be tents with cots to lie on, there’d be prepared meals. … This year, they’re trying to keep everyone separated, so it’s been a lot harder for people, especially those fleeing with pets, and things like that that are preventing them from being able to go to hotels.”

Koseff adds that people are sleeping in their cars sometimes.

He says he’s spoken to people who are struggling financially, having to buy gas and eat out for every meal as they’re away from home.

He says with so many fires burning right now, everyone is strained for resources — the federal government, Cal Fire, local departments. “The whole west coast is burning up, and the kind of mutual aid system that would normally reinforce our ability to fight these fires is under strain as well.”



  • Alexei Koseff - CalMatters reporter covering Gov. Gavin Newsom, the legislature and California government