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Sugar Fire Doubles Back on Doyle, Leaving Residents With Evacuation Whiplash

Scott Rodd
John and Karen Bohl watch the advancing Sugar Fire from their front porch. Their neighbor, middle, came by to check on them.

A faint glow over the ridgeline turned into cascading flames at dusk, as a column from the Sugar Fire blitzed toward the homes on Pickens Road.

Late last week, the same fire had narrowly missed this neighborhood in Doyle, a town of fewer than 1,000 residents in rural Lassen County. Now, it was back to take another shot.

“It’s like, alive — and it just comes for you,” said Karen Bohl, watching the approaching fire line from her front porch. “And it wants to kill everything in its path.”

The Sugar Fire doubling-back toward Doyle, propelled by 50 mph winds and ember-laden fire whirls, underscores the extreme weather conditions wildland firefighters increasingly face when battling blazes. It also left the fire-battered community with evacuation whiplash. Only hours after the Lassen County Sheriff’s Department eased evacuation orders, they were reinstated — and expanded to include closures on Highway 395.

For nearly two decades, the Bohls have grown accustomed to fires sparking in the area.

“But we’ve never seen anything like this,” Karen said.

The Sugar Fire is part of the Beckwourth Complex Fire. As of Thursday morning, the complex fire has grown to over 100,000 acres, the largest blaze in the state this year. Containment dropped to 68% due to the fierce overnight fire activity, after reaching 73% on Wednesday.

Only days earlier, Karen and her husband, John Bohl, watched the flames burn across a different hillside in front of their home — the fire’s first advance on Doyle, leaving a number of houses damaged or destroyed. The Bohls stayed through the evacuation order, adamant about protecting their home. They kept the property clear of brush and maintained a reliable irrigation system.

Now, they had the sprinklers running again, the click-click-click keeping time as they watched the flames steadily approach.

Scott Rodd
The Sugar Fire doubled-back on Doyle, burning hillsides and neighborhoods that narrowly missed the flames several days ago.

A mile away, down a dirt road, the fire bore down on a ranch at the bottom of the mountainside. Engines filed down to the end of Pickens Road — the ranch was once owned by actor Slim Pickens — where crews worked to beat back flames from the home and barn.

John stepped away for a moment, listening to his radio scanner. A retired sheriff’s deputy, he kept close tabs on the official chatter. He returned and sat next to Karen, placing a reassuring hand on her knee.

“I have faith that they’re going to take care of this,” she said.

A neighbor stopped by to check on the Bohls, and offered some welcomed levity. He had just repainted his house and was worried a helicopter might drop retardant on it. He didn’t want a new pink paint job, courtesy of Cal Fire.

Jokes aside, aircraft activity was limited Wednesday night. Helicopters were hampered by windy conditions, leaving ground crews to lead the fight. The incident management team overseeing response dispatched additional personnel to the active line from other, more dormant parts of the fire.

The Bohls had packed their car last week, ready to go if necessary. Karen said she took two things beyond the essentials — photos and a keepsake from her mother.

“All that matters to me are my memories,” she said. “Everything else can be replaced.”

Gesturing to the homes she’s lived in for 17 years, she projected a certain fire-hardened zen.

“I’ve resigned to losing all of this,” she said. “You have to just say, ‘What’s happening, is happening.’”

But that scenario would not come to pass Wednesday night. The fire shifted directions as the sun fell behind the ridge, heading away from the Bohls’s home to the north. But it left little peace in their hearts. The flames were advancing on another neighborhood down the road, full of folks they knew on a first-name basis.

“People here are salt of the earth,” said Karen. “Nobody’s wealthy. They just work hard for the little bit that they have.”

The Bohls returned inside for the night. But Karen couldn’t help checking the window occasionally, backlit by the TV’s blue glow, making sure the fire hadn’t changed its mind, yet again.