When Laura Cootsona woke up Wednesday morning to learn that the North Complex fire was ravaging Butte County, she immediately thought of the horrors of the campfire.
Outside, the sky was as dark as night and ash rained from the sky – just like two years ago when thousands of people were forced to flee from the flames that had engulfed their mountain homes. Entire cities, including Paradise, were destroyed and 85 people died. This was the deadliest fire in California history.
"The smoke smell PTSD is real," Cootsona told me from her Chico office as the fire in the north complex, which includes the bear fire, rose to more than 250,000 acres and ran towards Oroville. "It's awful."
Word had got around Wednesday night that the town of Berry Creek was gone. Three people had been reported dead and several more were missing.
With the California apocalypse, the orange skies, and all clear, one would expect that such devastation would break the spirit of a community. Instead, there is a kind of resigned resilience in rural Butte County that, like counties of Sonoma, Napa, and Lake, has suffered disaster after disaster in recent years.
And there's also a decent amount of outraged anger, mostly directed against state and federal agencies for stopping performing controlled burns to prevent or slow forest fires. "It's frustrating for me at 67 to see how things went from the time of administration and the fires were much smaller than they are today," said Bill Connelly, director of Butte County.
When fires inevitably explode in the mountains, as the Wall and Ponderosa fires did in 2017, reacting to anything is a worn out routine.
"Unfortunately, we are very familiar with evacuation," said Chuck Reynolds, Mayor of Oroville, on Wednesday. “We have a lot of experience in this area now and everyone seems to have their stuff to know what they would take and what they are willing to take. There doesn't seem to be nearly as much panic. "
Many in Butte County attribute this to a Sunday afternoon in early 2017 when Sheriff Coroner Kory Honea ordered the immediate mass evacuation of nearly 190,000 residents to communities downstream along the Spring, fearing an overflow collapse on the Oroville Dam.
Panicked and frustrated drivers sat in the bumper traffic for hours trying to escape.
It did so before the campfire devastated the town of Paradise and before the Woosley Fire burned 151 square miles from Westlake Village to Malibu – an area about one-third the size of the city of Los Angeles. It was also before the Tubbs Fire that burned counties of Napa, Sonoma, and Lake, and devastated Santa Rosa.
"We're joking that it was our training wheels for a fire," said Cootsona.
I remember vividly that Sunday afternoon in 2017. I was sitting on a patio about 70 miles away in Sacramento when a woman at the next table suddenly jumped up and started yelling into her cell phone.
She was hectic, almost crying, and telling everyone on the other end of the line that she had just been informed of the evacuation, was on a day trip and needed to warn her children about the evacuation and somehow get their horses to safety.
This type of panic has become more common in recent years as forest fires have turned into megafires that lead to mass evacuations in extremely short term. Butte County is doing it again this week with the North Complex.
And now of course there is COVID-19 to watch out for. Cootsona, executive director of the Homeless Services Agency at the Jesus Center in Chico, is one of those trying to figure out how to manage the fires in the middle of a pandemic.
The biggest challenge? What to do with the many people who are fleeing down the mountain? Or the many people who lost their home in the campfire two years ago and are still living in mobile homes and tents.
To reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading, Butte County does not use emergency shelters for evacuees. This makes hotels and motels the next best choice. In fact, around 90 families have been housed in rooms around Butte County as of Wednesday.
But another 140 families are waiting. One big reason for this is that homeless people are already occupying many of the rooms as part of Project Roomkey, a month-long government initiative that aims to slow the spread of COVID-19 by moving the most vulnerable people off the streets in hotels and motels to be brought.
Add to this the complications for emergency personnel, from firefighters to agencies like the Jesus Center that offer other services.
Cootsona offered an anecdote about a co-worker who lives in paradise. "Your house survived the fire," Cootsona told me. "The fire came through her neighborhood twice and she had to move out for five months because of the smoke damage, but she moved back."
Then hit COVID-19. Because of the pandemic, her children had taken home lessons. Then, this week, Pacific Gas & Electric began turning off electricity to avoid starting a fire under red flag conditions. With no electricity and no internet service, the employee had to drive down the mountain to gain access to a WiFi hotspot so that her children could finish the school day.
Then the north complex began to fire. Now she is back at her grandmother's house trying to coordinate how 600 meals a day should be distributed to people in need.
"Of course the only indispensable person in the building had to evacuate," Cootsona said.
But that's just life in Butte County. As the fire at the North Complex continues to swell, adding to the more than 2 million acres that were already charred in the worst forest fire season in modern history, I wonder if it is any glimpse into how California's apocalyptic future is facing climate change.
"I've been in office for 16 years," said Connelly. "I've had six fires in six years, none of which were as big as the campfire – until this one."