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People in this California town didn't have much. Then fire took it away

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

BERRY CREEK, Calif. - Berry Creek has been many things in its long history - a stagecoach stop, a lumber town, a vacation spot, a gold mining camp. It is home to retirees from crowded, expensive cities, marijuana growers and loners - lots of loners.

Now, Berry Creek has a new and terrible distinction. When the North Complex West Zone fire swept through this wooded enclave about two weeks ago, it killed more people and destroyed more homes here than anywhere else in its destructive path.

Fire Station 61 burned to the ground. Chief Reed Rankin, who heads the volunteer company, lost his home in the blaze. Only one of the seven current or former firefighters still has a house to go back to when evacuation orders are lifted.

Berry Creek Elementary School is a tangle of charred metal and a single red door. The market is gone. The Guild Hall is a memory, although its cream-colored sign still stands on Bald Rock Road inviting residents to play bingo on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. There were three churches here on Sept. 7. One remains.

The fire claimed 15 lives. Of the 14 who have been identified, 12 called Berry Creek home. And most of the 1,238 structures destroyed in the fire used to rise along Berry Creek's twisty gravel roads, on its heavily wooded hillsides, beside its gurgling streams.

Kristal Buchholz lived here, before she and her family were forced to flee late on Sept. 8. They were able to bring just three of their dogs with them, praying the others would survive the heat, smoke and flames.

 

Buchholz and her boyfriend made a home in her van on her parents' 20-plus acres. Her mom and stepfather lived in a house on the secluded property. Together they had 13 dogs, among them Buddy, Two Bit, Jake Jr., Goldy, Mia and Chewy.

Buchholz's stepdad has been here since 1963. He's a Vietnam vet, 70 years old, stronger and wiser than any boyfriend she's ever had.

"He doesn't do well in population with a lot of people," she said. "He's able to be a hermit up there. He is able to have his small circle of friends and keep to himself. He knows how to cut wood."

The 43-year-old moved here three years ago from Idaho to be with her parents. She stayed for them - and because it's beautiful and quiet and she could grow a little cannabis and stay away from the crowds in "town," aka Oroville, population 20,000 or so. She has "social anxiety hella tough," and in Berry Creek, "I don't have to deal with people."

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