Six Months After The North Complex, Berry Creek Residents In Varying Stages Of Recovery
The afternoon evacuations were issued in Berry Creek for the North Complex, Neil Meyer and David Lusk were at their homestead called Two Bucks Ranch. They had no idea the fire was headed their way. The sky had been filled with smoke for weeks as the fire originally burned as the Bear/Claremont Fire in forested Plumas County. High winds pushed it toward Butte County on Sept. 8, 2020.
The fire made an enormous run that day, engulfing more than 100,000 acres in 24 hours. That night, Meyer said they could hear it roaring.
“It seems like it's just almost on you,” he said.
Even so, the couple decided to stay and defend their property. Their efforts were successful; their home, garden and animals are all still standing or alive. It was a hard and risky decision, Meyer said.
“Public safety officials really, really, really, really don't like that. They don't like it at all,” he said. “But you know, so many people can't get insurance now for their homes and their properties. That’s even one more incentive for people to protect what they have.”
The North Complex destroyed 1,200 structures and killed 16 people. Now, six months later, few are back in Berry Creek and those who were displaced are living all over the country.
Patsy Oxford, the principal and superintendent of Berry Creek Elementary, said her school’s families are in many different situations.
“We have a family back East, we have a family in Redding … we have a family who’s traveling in a motorhome all over the United States,” she said. “We have homeless families in shelters in the Bay Area. We have a homeless family couch surfing, just a lot of different things.”
Thirty-three of the 35 families at the school lost their homes, Oxford said. This is the first month she’s seen anyone moving back to Berry Creek.
“Because they’re starting to clear properties,” she said. “So people are going to their properties in the trailer or RV that they had at an RV park.”
When the fire happened, Oxford said her school had 56 students. Now they have about 50 with half learning in-person and the other half learning remotely.
The school has been operating out of Ophir Elementary School in Oroville. Oxford anticipates about 19 of their students will soon move back to Berry Creek.
“After Spring Break, or maybe May 1, we will have more of our kids up there than down here,” she said.
For some, the decision to move back isn’t easy, even if they can't imagine living anywhere else. Will Cotter is the co-chair of the Berry Creek Community Council and a member of the Berry Creek Fire Safe Council. He owns two properties in the community -- one has had debris cleared, one hasn’t -- but he’s unsure of his future plans.
“I love Berry Creek, I mean I figured I would die in Berry Creek,” Cotter said. “I don't know what we're exactly going to do, I mean, that's definitely an option for us.”
Cotter said he used to mark the months that went by after the fire, but the six-month anniversary flew right by him.
“Which lets you know that there are things moving ahead,” Cotter said.
While he knows many people who are having difficulties with recovery on an individual level, as a whole, he said his community has been given a lot of guidance, mainly due to lessons learned during the 2018 Camp Fire.
“That was kind of uncharted territory at the time, but the cleanups have gone so much faster, they've improved those processes of the order things happen in, so, you know, through that tragedy there was some wisdom gained, which is coming to our benefit now,” he said.
Back at Two Bucks Ranch, Meyer and Lusk are navigating their own recovery. While their homestead is intact, there was one piece of critical infrastructure they weren’t able to save -- a historic flume and aqueduct system called Berry Creek Ditch, that carries water to their ranch and others.
Meyer and Lusk are still waiting on debris removal. Once the aqueduct is cleared, they’ll rely on volunteers and donations to rebuild it. If that doesn't happen, they’ll be stuck with little water, on a ranch that’s far less productive, valuable and defendable than it was last September.