Fire Storm at Berry Creek

Flavia PotenzaBy Flavia Potenza

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Fire Storm at Berry Creek
The Bidwell bridge did not burn
Two former Topangans survived the Bear Fire but lost their home. They also “lost a lifetime of stuff,” but not their lives. They are grateful beyond measure.
You could say it was a postscript to the Camp fire that wiped out the town of Paradise. On September 8, the Bear Fire, also called the North Complex fire, burned hot and fast through the small northern California town of Berry Creek. It wiped out the home of former Topangans Gabrielle Lamirand and Roy Miles and reduced 90 percent of the town to ashes. Gabrielle and Roy evacuated with their dog, Scout, family photos, and a few belongings. They thought they were coming back to their home. They lost a lifetime of “stuff,” as Gabrielle calls it, full of memories of family, friends, and times gone by. Their family photos, luckily, were still in their trailer from when they evacuated during the Camp fire.
Scout waiting to leave as the fire's light glowed red
The day began normally enough.

“The fire had been burning up at Buck’s Lake for about a month and we had about 14,000 lightning strikes,” Roy recalled. “Cal Fire was all over the place and we got a little complacent. We had the big wind again, sort of like the Camp fire but this time it was blowing toward us. Coming down the canyon, along the Feather River Canyon, the south fork, middle fork, north fork, and Lake Oroville.

“During the day,” he said, “I wasn’t paying attention. I first saw it online when a friend, Denise, said they were ‘rolling out of here.’ That was 3:15 p.m. ‘You’d better evacuate,’ she said.”

“Roy had to connect the trailer,” said Gabrielle, “So, in the meantime, I said I’m going to pack up. Then my brain changed. With the Camp fire evacuation, I packed some stuff of memories and put them in the trailer. No food, no coffee, but I took the memories.
“This time, I took all the things we needed to live, thinking we were going to come back. I didn’t think I was not going to come back to my house. I took the watercolors that my mother and Roy’s father did. Our photos were already in the camper since the Camp fire. But my brain had turned to fire fog.

Ashes were falling everywhere. I have pictures of how red everything is. Roy had just built this 12 x 12 deck, beautiful. We called it the COVID deck.

Scout’s lying there and everything around us is red.
“By 7 p.m., we left but we had to go down the road to turn the truck around. Neighbors were helping us back it up but a neighbor, Gary, came and just tore the gate down and we drove across the field. Good thing he came along because everyone else in his family had gone so we took him into town to meet his girlfriend and left him there with the family.
House before the fire
“We did some last-minute things with Mike and Yolanda next door and we all left. Other people who left later, were running for their lives with the fire right behind them. The fire was so close to one family their only escape was to go to Forman creek to Lake Madrone, which was an open space, nothing but dirt, because the lake had receded. It saved their lives.

“Our volunteer fire chief, Reid Rankin, has lived there for 30 years, built his own house. The fire engine he was driving caught on fire and they raced out of there and made it; the fire truck didn’t. Other volunteer firefighters lost their homes while they were fighting the fire elsewhere.”

Although Cal Fire was there, there were so many fires everywhere, they were overwhelmed. It was a fire storm. It moved fast and burned hot.

“From 3-8 p.m., when we were rolling down the hill, the fire was behind us but not right behind us,” Roy said. “Two people, who left around 10 or 11 p.m., were running for their lives. They crossed the bridge with it right behind them. The two bridges that accessed Berry Creek did not burn. Oddly, people, like us, who cleared their land, lost their homes; others, some did, some didn’t clear their land, were okay.

“We’re in the forest. We’ve got 16 pine trees that are lighting up like candles burning through the tops of the trees,” said Roy. “That was my hope that it would skip over us. No such luck.”

The wind was blowing embers through the brush during the Camp fire is Paradise a couple of years ago. “This fire went across the tops of our trees and then settled to the ground,” Roy said.

Shaking her head in disbelief, Gabrielle said, “I think to myself, all those years being with TCEP, and talking to people about being prepared, and I couldn’t figure out how to handle this better? What is wrong with you, Gabrielle? You didn’t do anything you told everybody else to do.”
House after the fire
The couple was invited by Pat and John MacNeil, who insisted they stay with them in Topanga, while they recovered and regrouped with plans to rebuild next year.

After ten minutes of talking about dogs, Gabrielle leaned in and whispered across the dining room table, “You know? There’s a kind of freedom in losing everything. Everything we’ve ever had, what we inherited….” She drifts off, remembering.

“Furniture from Catherine Haines and lots of other people in Topanga, chairs, our dining room table, a buffet from Bob DeWitt, my Root Beer Sign from Pat’s Topanga Grill. They’re gone. My whole house was stuffed with things from everybody else. I lost six sets of dishes. I don’t need six sets of dishes.

I’m upset about it but not devastated. I was able to replace my favorite set.”

She touches the silver and turquoise necklace she’s wearing. “I got it at the Calabasas farmers market 10 years ago. Gold is my color, but I bought this anyway. I thought I had lost all my jewelry. I can’t make any of it come back. All I can do is remember it. A week later, I looked in my purse and the necklace was there. I was so happy.

As soon as they could, they returned to the site, donned HAZMAT suits and dug through the ashes and rubble.
Gabrielle Lamirand and Roy Miles will rebuild. “There’s nothing left to burn.” Photo Courtesy Miriam Geer
“We found a lot of things. Melted,” they said. “Like Roy’s grandfather’s watch from the railroad.”

Gabrielle seemed to be sifting through the experience as she spoke. “It was covered with...whatever...a gray covering. We did find quite a few things. We knew where things were in the house. We dug up most of our silverware—a huge black bag full of silverware was all melted. I had a beautiful filigree with a cameo from my mother and found everything except the cameo.” Globs of melted glass and other things, transformed by the chemistry of fire, will go in the rock garden as they rebuild.

Right now, they have to wait for the hazardous debris to be removed.

“Where do you think all that is going to go,” Roy asked. “The Camp fire took up all the space with that debris. Where will this go?” He called the county and they told him, that’s a good question; they’re trying to figure it out now.

There’s a lot to do before they rebuild. FEMA, they said, learned a lot from the Camp fire. During a three-week period, a gym in Oroville, CA, was filled with different agencies giving away gift cards along with the opportunity to replace titles and other paperwork.

“Building and Safety emailed us the original house plans from 1965. Our son, Peter, is drawing up the plans for rebuilding and hopes to submit to plan check before Thanksgiving and start rebuilding next year hoping that the permit process will be streamlined for us all. Then, there’s the well, maybe we’ll need a new well pump, check that the water’s clean. In the meantime, neighbors are keeping an eye on our property.
Roy digging through debris
“We are concerned with the fire debris being washed into the creek and polluting the water downstream as it goes into Lake Oroville to the Feather River, and that goes into the aqueduct.

“Friends, Lori and Shay, helped us put down several 25-foot wattles for erosion control to prevent runoff into the creek.” When it rains, the wattles will filter out the debris as water runs through them; they can retain soil for one to two years. We see them here in Southern California, placed on hillsides to prevent erosion after fire or during construction.

Fortunately, the COVID-19 lockdown didn’t change their lives. Gabrielle still works from home, Roy is retired. “We don’t go out much and nobody comes in, so it wasn’t so bad for us.” In May, they said, “in Butte County there were 14 cases and no deaths.

Since then, said Gabrielle, “We have 3,000 cases between the ages of 17-34 because people refused to wear masks and kids were coming back to the colleges nearby. At the RV park, we were required to wear masks.”
Gabrielle considers the Praying Mantis, another survivor, to be a lucky sign
Gabrielle misses her mountains. “I miss my well water; it tastes wonderful. I love Topanga and everybody I know there, but I miss my sweet air in the mountains. Topanga has grown up a lot since we moved here.”

As for rebuilding in a high fire zone, they both quipped, “For the next ten years, we’re going to be pretty safe. There’s nothing there to burn. We’ll make everything fire-resistant; nothing is fireproof. When you have a fire storm like this, nothing’s going to save you.”

What would they recommend to people in Topanga?
“My first piece of advice is to put every piece of personal papers in a box that you can just grab and get out,” said Gabrielle. “Never did I think I wouldn’t go back. Never, when I left Topanga, did I think I was going to move up there and have a fire. It wasn’t part of my process.”

Roy says, “If it’s a mandatory evacuation, don’t plan on coming back, especially if there’s ash falling in your driveway. We just lucked out with the Camp fire. We were evacuated for 10 days. The fire was 3-4 miles from our house, just around the big bend in the river.

Everything burned around us. This time it came around the middle fork and swept right through town.
firefighters Bob Creek Fire
Holly Miles started a GoFundMe campaign to help them until they can rebuild. The response has been typical of Topanga…Astounding!

“WOW!” they wrote of the campaign. “We so thank our family and friends for their donations to our new start in life. The support everyone has shown just warms our hearts and reminds us of how many wonderful friends we have.”

“That’s life now with Gabrielle and Roy,” they laughed.
Gabrielle says she thinks she has a personality that says, “I can go on. I’m not going to give up.”

Roy says, “There are people here who are much worse off than we are. There is a loss, and we need help, but my horoscope this morning said, ‘There’s no one better than you to do the job.’ I said, ‘WHAT?? I have to go to work again?’ It never stops.”
Flavia Potenza

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