Sheriff tells stories behind wildfire deaths in Northern California

Details are emerging on circumstances that led to the deaths of several people whose remains were found last week in the North Complex fire outside Oroville.

Butte County Sheriff and Coroner Kory Honea said DNA testing is being used to positively identify fire victims after they’re found. As of Monday night, the death toll had risen to 15.

At a Monday night briefing, Honea described fiery situations at two locations where residents perished.

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Family members of elderly Berry Creek residents John and Sandra Butler called the sheriff’s office last Wednesday to say they had not heard from the couple, Honea said. The couple told their family they would get in a pond if the fire got close.

“The family members had spoken to the Butlers during the fire,” the sheriff said. “The Butlers told the family members they were going to seek refuge from the fire at a pond near their residence.”

Searchers later found the bodies of John Butler, 79, and Sandra Butler, 75, Honea said. Detectives obtained the Butlers’ phone records and determined their last known location was near their residence, the sheriff said.

MORE: Death toll in Southern Oregon fire goes down

“My sincerest condolences go out to the Butler family,” he said.

Also last Wednesday, Honea said the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported two deaths in the area of Graystone Lane, also in Berry Creek.

The two people are believed to have lived in a nearby home, which was destroyed by fire.

One victim, 68-year-old Philip Rubel, was found inside a burned-up Toyota pickup, Honea said.

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A second vehicle was found resting against a boulder not far from the pickup. The second victim, 77-year-old Millicent Catarancuic, was discovered down an embankment.

The two apparently were prepared to evacuate but didn’t because of misinformation about the wind-driven blaze.

“After speaking with family members, it is believed the decedents were aware of the fire in their area. They had packed their belongings in preparation to evacuate but later decided not to evacuate based on errorneous information that the fire was 51% contained,” Honea said.

RELATED: What we know Tuesday about wildfires in the North State: Death toll at 15 in North Complex; two schools destroyed

The Butte County Sheriff’s Office said of the 15 fatalities reported as of Monday night, these three others have been positively identified and their next-of-kin have been notified.

  • Josiah Williams, 16, of Berry Creek
  • Khawar Bhatti, 58, of Berry Creek
  • Jorge Hernandez-Juarez, 26, of Berry Creek

Mike Chapman is a reporter and photographer for the Record Searchlight in Redding, Calif. His newspaper career spans Yreka and Eureka in Northern California and Bellingham, Wash. Follow him on Twitter @mikechapman_RS. Subscribe today!

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