California burning


MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 29th of September, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: wildfires.

In August, lightning strikes, high winds, and downed power lines sparked fires up and down the West Coast. More than a month later, California firefighters continue to battle more than 20 major wildfires. Oregon has 10 and Washington state, 11. So far the blazes have torched more than 5 million acres.

REICHARD: Several small communities have also gone up in flames, including the rural town of Berry Creek, California. WORLD’s Sarah Schweinsberg visited the area last week.

RADIO: It’s one o’clock in the afternoon in Northern California. It is Monday, September 21 2020. 

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Butte County is an hour north of Sacramento. Today’s weather forecast says the county should enjoy clear blue skies and a high of 89 degrees. 

Half of that is true. A thick dome of gray smoke cloaks the county, blocking any signs of the blue sky. 

In August, lightning strikes sparked several small fires in the county’s Sierra Nevada foothills and canyons. The blazes grew into the North Complex Fire. 

So far, this one wildfire has consumed more than 300,000 acres of forest and two thousand homes and businesses. It’s killed 15 people. 

The fire took nearly all of those lives in Berry Creek—a small community set far off the main highways on heavily forested hillsides. When the fire reached it on September 8th, most of the town’s 1,200 people fled west. 

William Spradlin and his son, Michael, left their home just before it went up in flames.

WILLIAM: The sky was changing so many different colors it was unbelievable. And then the roar of it. It was like five freight trains sound like coming down through there. We stayed till we thought we should leave. And about 11 o’clock at night. Everything’s gone.

They fled so quickly, Michael put his jeans on backward. Now all they have is a diesel pickup truck and what William threw in the back for his grandson. 

WILLIAM: There’s his dirt bike, his mountain bike. And then we got a few tools, generators, a compressor. Nothing that we really need. We got out of there with a pair of pants and a shirt.

Butte County officials put the Spradlins and other fire survivors up at a Motel 6 in Oroville, a small town outside the forest. Other fire victims are staying in campers or with relatives. 

AUDIO: [People in line]

Two weeks after the town burned, FEMA arrived. The government disaster aid agency has set up tables and chairs under canopies in a Tractor Supply Company parking lot. 

The Spradlins and other Berry Creek residents stand under the smoky sky waiting to file claims and ask questions about cleanup efforts. 

AUDIO: [Diesel truck]

People leave their vehicles running so their dogs inside stay cool. 

As they wait, their neighbor Kathy Sheldon stops by to offer hugs. She’s trying to keep her scattered community encouraged. 

SHELDON: I’ve lived there for 34 years. My husband’s been there for 59 years up there. My husband and I are the one that’s getting people together for meetings, just the community, not officials, to see what we’re going to do and how we go about doing it.

For other Butte County residents, the smell of smoke and the sights of disaster relief brings back bad memories. An elderly woman walks through the parking lot, comforting the county’s latest fire survivors.

DROUILLARD: My heart goes out to you guys. I know exactly what you’re going through. I know exactly how you feel. I still haven’t gotten over that feeling. My loss. I still haven’t gotten into a home. 

Valerie Drouillard lost her house to the Camp Fire in 2018: another deadly blaze that devoured more than 19,000 homes and businesses. 

Drouillard says two years later, she’s still not back in a house. She lives in a trailer. 

AUDIO: [People standing in line]

Down the street, a much longer line snakes through another parking lot. These fire survivors are waiting to talk to county officials about housing and replacing lost documents. 

The lines are so long because this is the first day since Berry Creek burned two weeks earlier that a county resource center for fire victims has opened. 

Shelby Boston directs the Butte County Department of Employment and Social Services. She says that’s actually pretty fast. 

BOSTON: And so for example, the Camp Fire happened on November 8, and we opened up December 16. And so the fact that we’ve been able to mobilize as many people in two weeks is pretty good. 

But local churches and nonprofits jumped in as soon as the fire burned through. They provided clothes, food, and hygiene items. They also helped residents navigate the assistance claims process. 

Berry Creek resident Sarah Winters says one Christian non-profit called the Oroville Hope Center helped her file a FEMA disaster claim five days before FEMA even got here. 

WINTERS: They gave us like $300 in Visa gift cards and the lady even come out to my old man’s parents trailer park and helped us make sure that we got all the way through the process of the whole FEMA situation. 

Steve Sheldon stands under the shade of a tree waiting for his wife Kathy to finish up with FEMA. 

He says recovering from disasters like fires is a years long process. And it takes people in the community and from the community to see it through. 

And he plans on getting back to Berry Creek.  

SHELDON: By this time next year, I fully intend to be sitting on my front porch sipping a cold one. I got to do it. I got to do it for me.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg in Oroville, California.


(Photo/Sarah Schweinsberg)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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