Throughout this burned out town in the foothills of Butte County, there were signs everywhere Thursday of the devastation from the Bear Fire.
Houses leveled, with only the chimneys standing. Wrecked vehicles burned along the roadside or flipped into ditches. Horses that escaped their fields and somehow survived.
And then there was Robert Daniels’ home on Bald Rock Road, just down the roadway from where two of the three victims killed in the fire were found.
Daniels’ home survived, but only because he raced into Berry Creek on Tuesday night to save it himself with bottles of water and Gatorade he used to extinguish flames as they lit up his wooden deck and garage.
While the rest of the town of about 500 people fled for their lives – and as the out of control blaze destroyed 2,000 structures in the region – Daniels, a hotshot crew firefighter who was working the BTU Complex fire at the time, raced toward home when he heard the Bear Fire had exploded.
He arrived up the hill from Oroville just as the fire was approaching his house, and at first he was driven back.
“When the flaming front got to the house it was really hot, so I just went half a mile down the road,” he said Thursday outside his house, which appeared unscathed. “When the front passed and got to me, I got back to the house just in time.
“The deck was catching on fire, my garage is burnt up on the side, so I got back just in time. I had four, 5-gallon buckets of water and a case of bottled water and I was just running around putting everything out.”
Daniels’ house is on a well and his power was out, so he scrambled to fill buckets. Decked out in boots, Nomex firefighting pants and a T-shirt, he went to work. He wanted to save the home for his 5-year-old son, who was safe in Sacramento at the time. But he wasn’t going to take any chances.
“What good would I be to him if something happened to me?” he said.
Like any firefighter likely would, Daniels said he a kept a defensible space between his home and the vegetation around his property. Many of his neighbors did, as well, and still lost their homes.
Devastation in Berry Creek
All around Daniels, there was devastation. A gas station across the road was a pile of smoking rubble, burned vehicles littered lots throughout Berry Creek and frightened animals wandered the streets or waited in fenced-in fields for someone to help.
“We’re coming up here and hopefully rescuing some animals,” Lynette Brennan, a Butte County animal control official, said as she sat near Daniels’ home with a trailer into which she had loaded a badly burned horse that is expected to be shipped to the UC Davis veterinary school for treatment.
“We have a couple injured animals and some that are in good shape, so we’re just trying to get them back to their families,” said Brennan, who was accompanied by Cindy Walden, a volunteer from North Valley Animal Disaster Group. “We have an injured horse at the moment, and there’s some goats back there that also need to be transported.”
Brennan said she had been working since the fire swept through Tuesday.
“We got several animals up here before the fire hit Bald Rock,” she said.
It was too dangerous to return Wednesday to the fire, but they spent Thursday combing the area looking for animals.
Besides them and Daniels, firefighters, clean-up crews, sheriff’s deputies and utility workers appeared to be the only people in the community, which has been blocked off from visitors and residents because of the danger.
Downed power lines litter the streets like spaghetti strands. Wooden support posts for guard rails along the Oroville-Quincy Highway were still burning or smoking Thursday, and smoke in the lower areas of the hills was so thick it made driving difficult.
Some structures survived. About half a dozen homes and the Berry Creek Community Church appeared undamaged.
But most of the town has been destroyed, and anxious residents were relying on people with access to the community to tell them what happened to their homes.
Richard and Linda Nelson, who owned a vacation cabin on Sand Creek Drive in Berry Creek for 32 years, lost their primary home in the Camp Fire and have since moved to the Sacramento area.
On Thursday, they got word that their cabin and Richard’s wood-working shop were destroyed.
A ceramic squirrel sitting on a retaining wall near what had been the cabin survived, as did a concrete Pagoda. But the rest is gone and the family isn’t sure they’ll rebuild.
“What do you think?” Linda Nelson asked. “Given our health and our age, we may not come back.”
Down the road, their neighbor Jeffrey Davis was one of the luckier ones in the neighborhood, which had a couple homes still standing. Davis was in Chico at the time of the fire and tried to race home, but was not allowed up the hill.
Instead, he learned Thursday that a home he rented out on the property had been destroyed, but his garage and a barn-like building he lives in had been spared.
“The house was all I had insured,” he said, adding in a phone interview that he didn’t know if he will rebuild. “I have to assess the damage first.
“My first thought is, do I want to live in a smelly burnt-out area.”
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