LOS ANGELES – As a rapidly growing wildfire barreled toward Lake Oroville, residents of the small mountain communities lying in its path had to decide what to do.
Two told their families they planned to seek shelter at a nearby pond. Another said he would leave only when he could see the fire from his home.
Three others were ready to evacuate, only to hold off based on incorrect information about how much the blaze was contained.
All of those people, along with nine others, ultimately fell victim to the North Complex fire, a massive blaze that exploded last week into one of the deadliest and most expansive conflagrations California has seen.
While crews continue working furiously to contain the blaze – now the fifth-largest and among the deadliest in recorded state history at more than 284,000 acres – and assess the extent of the devastation left in its wake, information has begun to trickle in about those who paid the ultimate price.
Much is unclear, and two of the victims have not been officially identified. But the initial details of those who perished illustrate the speed and ferocity with which the fire moved, differences in residents’ response to evacuation orders and how, for some, inaccurate or incomplete information may have been the difference between life and death.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Thursday evening that only one person reported missing is still unaccounted for – a promising sign the death toll might not climb higher.
“Our efforts to really get out and start searching areas has increased dramatically,” he said during a briefing, adding: “Because we’re covering a lot more ground, and that number (of fatalities) is staying steady, that gives me some hope.”
Even so, only four California fires have killed more people than the North Complex.
The victims who have been identified range widely in age: from 16 to 79. Most lived in Berry Creek, a mountain hamlet northeast of Oroville, while two hailed from nearby Feather Falls.
Both towns found themselves in the crosshairs of the blaze’s astonishing and horrifying advance. The fire’s growth, at times estimated at about 2,000 acres an hour, sent crews scrambling to implement a plan of attack and forced some 20,000 residents in Butte, Plumas and Yuba counties to flee.