A year after the North Complex Fire, Berry Creek residents say rebuilding hindered by costs, crime and splintered community
By Ken Smith
Until the night of Sept. 8, 2020, Berry Creek’s Village Market was the beating heart of a thriving community. It was the only destination “on the hill”—as locals refer to the foothills area—that offered groceries and gas. And it was where neighbors, who mostly knew one another by first name, could always find a friendly face and catch up on recent news and gossip.
All that remains of the market since that date, when the North Complex Fire roared through and leveled most of the town’s homes, businesses and public buildings overnight, is a few gas pumps in the middle of a parking lot. The lot persists as a meeting spot, however, and is where more than a half-dozen Berry Creek residents met in late August to discuss the process of restoring their community as the fire’s one-year anniversary approached.
The consensus among the group was that rebuilding had been slow and arduous. Sometimes angry and sometimes near tears, the residents—most of whom are currently living in campers, tents or RVs on their properties—recited a litany of obstacles complicating their efforts. These included prohibitive costs, criminal activity in the area and what they see as a lack of assistance from the county and outside agencies. Unanimously, they felt overlooked in the light of the region’s other tragic fires.
“It feels like everyone forgot about us,” Jackie Siegfried said. Another woman, Janice Wilson, stated even more emphatically, “It’s like no one ever really cared about Berry Creek before the fire, and they really don’t care about us now.”
One person who does care, deeply, about the plight of Berry Creek’s residents is Oroville’s Frank Martinez, who helped arrange the meeting at the Village Market site. Martinez said he’s been affected by multiple fires at his own property, having hosted evacuees and been one himself on multiple occasions.
Martinez said he started getting involved in fire relief efforts after his Grateful Dead cover band, Franklin’s Tower, played a 2017 benefit show for a Cascade Fire survivor. During the Camp Fire, he helped gather supplies and cook for survivors, and since then he has lent assistance during several major woodland blazes, often loading his silver Dodge Caravan with supplies to deliver to the epicenter of these disasters. He said he has hundreds of close friends in Berry Creek and the surrounding area; he refers to them as his “nephews and nieces.”
In the weeks following the North Complex Fire, Martinez partnered with three survivors to form Berry Creek United. The group has since obtained official non-profit status. It hosts regular free community meals, helps provide supplies to survivors, recently participated in Dixie Fire relief efforts and continues to advocate for Berry Creek residents as the focus shifts from meeting immediate needs to long-term rebuilding efforts.
One of BCU’s founders is Brittany Flanagin, who serves as the group’s chief financial officer. She is also an admin of Facebook group Bald Rock Talk, where people meet virtually to share resources and their fire recovery experiences. Before the fire, Flanagin worked as a cashier at Village Market, and she helped arrange the parking lot meeting of survivors and the CN&R.
Running up to that meeting, Flanagin posted an informal poll to that group that asked, simply, “How are you feeling today?” She offered a dozen or so possible responses, both negative and positive. The most frequently chosen, each roughly 50 times, were “Still in the area with unstable living situation,” “mentally unwell” and “confused.”
Money and permits
Only a handful of homeowners in the area have begun rebuilding, and none of the residents who met at the ruins of the Village Market planned to start anytime soon. At least one woman said she had given up hope of ever rebuilding in the area, and none expected to break ground until at least 2023.
That’s because rebuilding is a complicated, costly and time-consuming process involving numerous county, state and federal government agencies—ranging from at least two different Butte County departments (Planning and Environmental Health) to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Additionally, those looking to rebuild often have to coordinate with Cal Fire and/or PG&E at various steps along the way.
“It just seems like with each step, someone has their hands in your pockets,” one woman said.
For many, the process begins with a state-issued Right-of-Entry permit, which enables property owners to avail of state and FEMA programs that can help with debris cleanup. With the state backlogged due to years of disastrous fires, even this first step can take months. Debris cleanup is a two-phase process (one for toxic chemicals, another for debris), and the removal of hazardous trees is yet another step.
After those things are accomplished, staying on a property burnt by fire requires residents to pay nearly $700 for a permit to camp on their own land (“which we’ve already paid our property taxes on,” one woman pointed out). Residents wanting to rebuild are also responsible for the cost of having a power pole installed.
All of this needs to be accomplished before residents can even apply for costly permits to rebuild. With contractors in demand due to multiple wildfires in recent years; stricter state regulations to ensure homes are more resistant to fire; and the cost of building materials at an all-time high due to supply-chain breaks, rebuilding costs are being driven even higher.
In the meantime, most of the people still living on their land require gas-powered generators for electricity. The Berry Creek residents said that, with this summer’s temperatures regularly reaching triple digits, they could easily go through five gallons or more of gas a day; they reported spending between $600 and $1,600 monthly on fuel.
There also are insurance issues. At least two of the Berry Creek residents said they are currently in lawsuits with their insurers over settlement amounts. Others complained that pay-outs covered only the cost of their homes, not their belongings. And some said that the cost to insure once they are in the process of rebuilding will be greatly inflated over their previous premiums.
The survivors said the most immediate help they could use is with the cost of permits, noting that grants covered many such fees for Ridge residents to rebuild after the Camp Fire, but only a handful have been available for North Complex victims.
“This community is never going to get anywhere if the county or state or somebody doesn’t get involved to make it easier for people here,” Flanagin said. “A lot of people up here have fairly low incomes and can’t afford to get their lives back to where where they were at before the fire. As long as we’re overlooked, nothing will get better.”
Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly represents District 1—which includes Berry Creek—and during a recent phone interview said he’s aware of, and sympathetic to, the challenges his constituents in the area have faced in the wake of the fire. He also agreed that they’ve been overlooked.
“The Dixie Fire is the latest thing, and prior to that was the Camp Fire, which wiped out parts of Concow and Yankee Hill and took out 12,000 homes in Paradise,” he said. “With the North Complex Fire falling between, it really is a forgotten fire. There’s not as much empathy for the victims, nor is there as much money readily available to help them.”
Connelly said waiving building fees or lessening them at the county level is not possible, because “the cost of government has gone up dramatically, even during my time in office.” Instead, he said he—“with the full support of the rest of the Board of Supervisors”—is actively seeking grant funding to alleviate that burden.
Several of the Berry Creek residents noted that there was a series of county-run town halls and informational meetings in the wake of the Camp Fire, while only one (at the Southside Oroville Community Center, in April) was held for North Complex victims. Attendance at the meeting was sparse, which Connelly and the Berry Creek crew agreed was due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Connelly said he would work on scheduling another in the near future in order to hear citizens’ ongoing concerns.
Resources are increasing
The topic of disaster case managers—who can help survivors connect with resources and navigate the difficult rebuilding process—was met with a collective guffaw from the group of Berry Creek survivors. A few said they’re working with case managers or waiting to connect with one.
“Good luck finding a case manager,” one woman said. “Even if you do, it’s hard to feel like a priority when they have so many other clients.”
Disaster case management is funded by FEMA, which contracts with agencies to carry out those services. For the North Complex Fire, case management is delivered by North Valley Catholic Social Service (NVCSS) and St. Vincent De Paul (SVDP).
Stephanie Gregorio, who oversees those services for SVDP, said that the two organizations have a total of five caseworkers dedicated to North Complex survivors.
“A big obstacle is the sheer number of people that need help compared to our staffing,” Gregario said. “For that reason, there are waiting lists for case managers.”
For the Camp Fire, the Butte County Department of Employment and Social Services coordinated with FEMA to contract with organizations that did case management, according to Employment and Social Services Director Shelby Boston. She said that FEMA funded some case workers through NVCSS and SVDP, but the need was so great that her organization successfully appealed to the North Valley Community Foundation (NVCF) to pay for more. However, her department is not involved in this aspect of North Complex Fire.
NVCF has been instrumental to North Complex Fire recovery, supplying more than $600,000 in grant funding.
On Sept. 8—the one year anniversary of the fire—an organization called California Hope of Butte County, a subset of NVCSS, opened a Wildfire Resource Center near Lakeside market in Oroville, which it hopes will be easily accessible for North Complex fire victims from Berry Creek, Feather Falls and the surrounding foothills.
Cal Hope program manager Jake Fender, who oversees the center, said it offers resources like a computer lab, printing center and some supplies needed to meet immediate needs. Case workers are on site on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Fender said the Bear Fire Long Term Recovery Group—a coalition of more than 50 individuals and organizations dedicated to helping people rebuild—is also hard at work towards recovery. Since May, that group has held monthly “resource round-ups” to connect with survivors and aid in recovery efforts.
Theft and other losses
Some of the Berry Creek folk at Village Market said they were taking a risk even being there, and away from their properties, due to theft.
“We have overwhelming crime and absolutely no police presence,” one woman said, explaining that generators are the most common targets. Several of those who gathered believe the thieves even monitor local social media groups to ascertain when people will be attending meetings, picking up supplies or are otherwise away from home.
Connelly also acknowledged theft in the area, saying he’s heard from constituents about whole metal buildings being stolen from people’s properties. He said that’s in part due to a lack of sheriff’s deputies throughout the county, which the supervisors have attempted to address through pay increases. He referred any further questions about criminal activity to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office; the CN&R did not receive a reply before press time.
“I haven’t forgotten about them—I really care about and love the people up there,” Connelly said. “It’s just really difficult when we have fire after fire after fire.”
Perhaps even more troubling than stolen generators is the sense of community that the fire stole from Berry Creek.
“It’s really hard to gather people together,” Flanagin said. “We tried doing some shindigs in Oroville … but it’s hard for a lot of people up here on the hill to even get gas money to come down there. There’s no community center, no grange, no building at all up here for people to meet at. Nobody wants to get together in the dirt and the heat.
“We’re really struggling to stay together.”