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Third victim identified among 14 dead in West Zone wildfire; winds return to California

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 5 days ago By Michael McGough, The Sacramento Bee

Fire activity on the North Complex stayed relatively minimal over the weekend, but crews are bracing for poorer weather Monday that could “test containment lines” on the devastating Northern California blaze, which has killed at least 14 people since exploding in size last week.

The wildfire complex continues to burn primarily in Plumas and Butte counties after sparking Aug. 17 at Plumas National Forest. Fire officials say it was ignited by lightning during powerful thunderstorms that swept through the state last month.

The southwest corner of the complex flared up dramatically last Tuesday and Wednesday, jumping the Middle Fork of the Feather River and making a furious sprint toward the Lake Oroville area, boosted by wind gusts exceeding 50 mph.

Gusts could range from 25 mph to 35 mph on Monday and are expected to “transition to downslope and down canyon,” meaning they could at least partially reverse direction compared to last week, according to a Sunday evening update from the U.S. Forest Service.

The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning for portions of Butte, Plumas, Shasta and Tehama counties, in place from 11 a.m. to at least 8 p.m., as the wind will meet continued dry conditions to create more critical fire weather conditions. Last week’s eruption on the North Complex came during a red flag warning.

The West Zone of the complex — which had previously been referred to as the Bear Fire — killed at least 14 people as it ripped through communities north and northeast of Lake Oroville, including the town of Berry Creek, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office. Another seven who are reported missing remain unaccounted for.

Butte County sheriff and coroner’s officials on Sunday evening named another victim who has died in the fire. Khawar Bhatti, a 58-year-old Berry Creek resident, was killed in the West Zone.

Bhatti is the third victim identified by authorities. Previously identified were 16-year-old Josiah Williams and 77-year-old Millicent Catarancuic, both also of Berry Creek. Victim identities are not released until family members have been notified.

Cal Fire’s official Monday morning situation report starts by declaring that the North Complex fire entered Butte County “with a vengeance” last week. The town of Berry Creek, which had a population of roughly 1,200 people, was effectively destroyed in a 24-hour window.

The North Complex as a whole has burned 264,374 acres and was 38% contained as of Monday morning, a containment increase of 12% since Sunday evening’s update, according to the Forest Service, which is the lead agency for the north and south zones of the fire. Cal Fire is in charge of the deadly West Zone, which the agency reported at 74,400 acres and 20% containment early Monday.

The West Zone has destroyed more than 500 structures, including at least 132 homes, and continues to threaten approximately 23,000 more buildings across Butte, Plumas and Yuba counties, according to Cal Fire. The true destruction toll is likely higher, and will emerge as authorities continue to survey the damage, fire officials say.

Areas just south of Lake Oroville were urgently evacuated late Tuesday and early Wednesday, and an evacuation warning was issued encompassing nearly the entire city of Oroville southwest of the lake. That warning has since been lifted.

The Butte County communities of Berry Creek, Brush Creek, Big Bend, Feather Falls and Cherokee remain under mandatory evacuation orders, authorities said Sunday. La Porte and Bucks Lake are under evacuation orders in Plumas County. Yuba County evacuation zones 1, 2 and 3C along the Butte and Plumas county lines have mandatory orders in place as well.

Numerous evacuation warnings and road closures are in also in place throughout the three counties, but warnings for the city of Oroville and the communities of Palermo and Honcut were lifted over the weekend. An evacuation order for Forbestown Road along Highway 162 in Butte County was reduced to a warning at 8 a.m. Monday.

The Forest Service said containment lines have held well on the North Zone of the North Complex, as crews are “working toward their goal of tying into the 2018 Camp Fire scar” to the west near the communities of Concow, Magalia and Paradise. Officials also said firefighters made “great progress” Sunday securing containment lines on the South Zone of the complex.

More than 3,300 firefighters remain assigned to the North Complex, with over 2,000 of them fighting the West Zone, according to Cal Fire and the Forest Service.

The fire’s runs in the West Zone last week proved a frightening reminder for Butte County residents who lost homes, lost loved ones or otherwise lived through the traumatic Camp Fire less than two years ago.

“I’ll never go back,” 50-year-old John Sykes told The Bee last Wednesday. “I don’t want to see it. That’s why I’m leaving. I never want to see California again.”

The North Complex is currently the eighth-largest and seventh-deadliest wildfire in recorded California history, according to Cal Fire records.

Three other massive wildfires that started last month — the 877,000-acre August Complex near Mendocino National Forest in Tehama County; the 396,000-acre SCU Lightning Complex in the South Bay; and the 363,000-acre LNU Lightning Complex in the North Bay area — are the largest, third-largest and fourth-largest wildfires recorded in state history, respectively. All three are actively burning without full containment.

What about smoke and air quality?

Smoke billowing from numerous active wildfires, but especially the August Complex and North Complex, has worsened Northern California air quality nearly every day for the past three weeks.

The major flare-up on the North Complex turned the sky varying shades of orange last week, particularly Wednesday, as smoke became well-established in Sacramento and in the Bay Area.

Over the weekend, air quality index readings were very poor in the capital region, regularly exceeding AQI 200 for particulate matter (PM 2.5), the air pollutant most closely associated with wildfires.

AQI readings across the greater Sacramento area were in the “unhealthy” range between 151 and 200 as of 7 a.m. Monday, and are expected to remain at similar levels the rest of the day as well as Tuesday, according to local air districts at SpareTheAir.com.

A radar forecast from NWS, though, shows near-surface smoke as comparatively light in the Sacramento area, with potential improvement by late Monday afternoon or early evening as onshore wind flows arrive. NWS forecasters say winds are expected to continue through later this week, and may be strong enough to keep pushing smoke out of the Sacramento region.

But the extent to which air quality improves will depend on how much smoke the fires continue to produce, which is harder to predict and could also increase due to those same winds.

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©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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