2 additional deaths confirmed; unhealthy air to linger for weeks


Cal Fire map of North Complex Fire, Sept. 13

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea confirmed two additional deaths Sunday, raising the North Complex Fire death toll to 14. The fire has burned more than 261,000 acres and containment is 26%. The West Zone of the fire in Butte County has burned 74,000 acres and is 18% contained.

“A critical period of weather is coming in the next 48 hours,” said Dan Borsum, an incident meteorologist. “What has been happening with the weather pattern is that a storm system is approaching Oregon and Washington. For our area it’s producing a shift to a southwesterly wind aloft.”

Borsum predicted that the very unhealthy air quality could last the rest of the month.

News items from Sunday’s community briefing included:

  • A red flag warning has been issued for Monday
  • 6 individuals have been arrested after being found on evacuated property
  • Butte County responded to 181 welfare checks; 160 individuals have been found, 7 remain unaccounted for, and 14 are confirmed dead
  • The air quality and smoke in Butte County may last for the rest of the month
  • There are 29 major fires or complexes burning and 36 new fires have started since Saturday
  • 253 single-residence structures have been destroyed in the fire
  • Over 3.3 million acres have burned in California since Aug. 15
  • With over 16,000 firefighters working and 2,200 fire engines in use throughout the state, California continues to battle a historic fire season. 

“At this point in time, in the next 15 days, there is not a weather system of subsequent strength to cause this air to be moved out of the region,” Borsum said. “Unfortunately, we’re probably looking through the month of September of maintaining close to this air quality.”

Borsum predicted that conditions could improve minimally by Tuesday, but the red flag warning will likely remain in effect.

Winds on Monday will not be as strong as those seen on Sept. 8, but may lead to rapid fire spread. Strong southwest winds should begin around 10 a.m. on Monday and peak around 1 p.m.

“The southwest wind aloft is a favorable direction to move smoke from other fires away from the North Complex,” Borsum said. “Coming into tomorrow, that sets the stage for us to see sunshine.”

Sheriff Kory Honea is working with officials to set up property visits for evacuated residents while accompanied by officers. Honea asked residents to remain patient because it may take weeks before conditions improve.

“Those areas that are most impacted will take the longest to open up again,” Honea said. “We’re doing our best, but we need to do it as safely as possible.” 

It may be weeks before residents evacuated from the most affected areas can return to their properties.

“They’ve (Berry Creek, Feather Falls and Brush Creek) sustained a lot damage, and it’s going to take a lot of time to get that area cooled down to the point where we can render it safe for our utility partners to get in there and be able to work.” said Ron Bravo, deputy operations Section Chief, Team 4. 

The North Complex Fire is unlikely to be contained soon as weather conditions continue to change and resources are stretched statewide. Bravo encouraged individuals to remain cognizant of fire conditions and to listen to evacuation orders and warnings.

“There is a ton of work that still needs to be done,” Bravo said. “Don’t get the false sense that is going to be over anytime soon. …Years ago, this would have been upwards of the No. 1, as in size, fire in the (history of the) state of California. We have hundreds of miles yet to complete to secure this fire.” 

Matthew Wreden and Chloe Curtis can be reached at [email protected] or @bymattwreden and @ChloeCurtis__ on Twitter.