Before the North Complex Fire roared through, Berry Creek had been a “wonderful little community” of about 1,200 people, said Patsy Oxford, principal at the town’s lone school.

Ancient, 200-foot pines towered over a cluster of homes and vacation cabins. Adults could fish in the lake while their kids splashed down a natural waterslide cut into the rock. Oxford knew every child in the town by name.

But the threat of fire always loomed.

In 2018, at the end of a summer that featured a record-hot July, the disastrous Camp Fire raced down the mountainside one canyon over, destroying the town of Paradise and killing 84 people. It was the deadliest wildfire in state history.

In its wake, Berry Creek won a grant from the state to build a “shaded fuel break” by removing small trees and debris from the forest on the outskirts of town. But bureaucratic delays stalled the project, said Jess Vickery, a college chemistry professor who volunteers as water district president in the Berry Creek neighborhood of Lake Madrone.

[Earth has warmest September on record, and 2020 may clinch hottest year]

By September, VPD levels across Northern California and much of the West were higher than they had been in a century, said John Abatzoglou, a fire researcher at the University of California at Merced. Any moisture in plants and soil was sucked out by the high temperatures.

People knew “the fuel load was pretty high and that things had been dry,” Vickery said. They cleared their yards and cleaned pine needles from their roofs.

The fire’s sudden approach still took Berry Creek by surprise. Oxford was at the school the morning of Sept. 8, getting ready for remote learning. She handed out WiFi hot spots to students under a bluebird sky. But by the time she drove out of town a few hours later, the landscape was orange and black. Embers and ash rained down on fleeing residents.

“Oh no,” Oxford thought to herself. “Oh my. This is not good.”

The conflagration was unstoppable, a wall of flames that roared down the mountains with almost no warning. Powerful winds sent still-glowing embers flying through the night, igniting whatever they touched.

The fast-moving blaze incinerated houses and engulfed residents trying to flee. Even seasoned firefighters said it was one of the most terrifying and destructive things they’d ever seen.

Sept. 10
Bloomer Hill lookout station near Berry Creek (James Holmes/ALERTWildfire)

When the smoke cleared, Vickery said, a “moonscape” remained.

The place where he’d spent summers as a kid, where he’d built a home and taught his children to swim, was unrecognizable. His house was safe, but about half his neighbors were homeless. The power gone, the water system ruined. The beach covered in ash, the towering pines turned into needle-less matchsticks.

Worst of all, the human toll: The teenager who loved nature, the sisters who offered their home to any animals and people in need, the great-grandparents who died while trying to seek refuge in a pond.

Image without caption
Image without caption
Image without caption

The Berry Creek Elementary School burned to the ground in minutes. Left unscathed is the blue frame of the playground, a splash of color amid the ashen landscape. (Photos by Max Whittaker for The Washington Post)

Extreme fires like the North Complex are almost impossible to fight safely, experts say, and they are becoming more common. Five of California’s six biggest recorded wildfires, including the North Complex, happened in 2020. The August Complex, at more than 1 million acres, is the state’s first “gigafire” to occur since at least 1932.

Research shows that human-caused climate change bears much of the blame.

The land west of the Rockies is hotter than it’s been in centuries. Average temperatures in California are now 1 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit higher than in the preindustrial era.

[Fires, floods and free parking: California’s unending fight against climate change]

It is also drier. The Southwest’s “megadrought” from 2000 to 2018 was the worst since the 16th century, according to a recent study in the journal Science. Millions of trees succumbed to the drought, creating vast stands of dead forest that would readily burn.

And after many decades in which federal policy was to suppress all blazes, forests that once depended on fire to stay healthy are now thick with small trees and other woody fuel.

In this far more flammable landscape, the acreage burned across the West has doubled since the mid-1980s as a result of human-caused warming, Abatzoglou and his fellow researcher A. Park Williams found. The number of autumn days in California with extreme fire weather has also doubled during that time.

The risk is outpacing what is predicted by climate models, Abatzoglou said in an interview. By the middle of the century, fire frequency could skyrocket to five times historical levels, said Patrick Gonzalez, a climate scientist and forest ecologist at the University of California at Berkeley.

And human-caused warming may also “sharpen” the West’s seasonal precipitation cycle, drying out the “shoulder seasons” of spring and fall. This is expected to prolong California’s fire season by delaying the arrival of winter rains, said L. Ruby Leung, an Earth system modeler at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

[Extreme climate change has arrived in America]

Studies also suggest that climate change will intensify the narrow strands of deep moisture that bring the state much of its rains and mountain snows during the winter, known as atmospheric river events, Leung said. If this moisture falls as rain instead of snow in late winter and early spring, it will accelerate the springtime snowmelt — which will make soils dry out faster in summer.

“When you look into the future, it’s a pretty robust signal,” Leung said. “Based on the science, it’s going to get worse.”

Increasing human-caused greenhouse gas emissions could double the number of fall days with extreme fire weather in parts of California by 2100.

Note: The fire weather index is a predictor of how wildfires may behave if they ignite, including whether they are likely to spread quickly and be intense or can be easily contained. Extreme fire weather days rank in the most dangerous 5 percent.

Source: John Abatzoglou, University of California at Merced

In Berry Creek, people are planning to rebuild, “smarter” than before, said Oxford, the school principal.

Simple changes to building practices, such as using nonflammable materials, can help make homes less likely to burn. States and municipalities can also adjust zoning laws to keep people out of the most dangerous spots.

Fire itself can be an effective tool for reducing built-up fuels, especially in the areas immediately surrounding communities, Gonzalez said.

In a report for the Federation of American Scientists, he called for setting controlled fires around communities during cooler weather, when they won’t be as severe. Officials should also take a hands-off approach to natural fires, he said, intervening only when they imperil homes and lives. By eliminating small trees and debris, these controlled blazes can make any subsequent fires less severe.

This policy would reduce the expense of fighting fires, which in 2018 cost the United States almost $25 billion. It would also be better for the climate, Gonzalez said. Though burning forests releases carbon dioxide, natural fires also improve the health of the biggest, oldest trees, which sequester the most carbon.

[Trump’s plan for managing forests won’t save us in a more flammable world, experts say]

And there is only one fundamental, long-term solution to wildfire, Gonzalez added: “Reducing carbon emissions from human activities.”

Image without caption
Image without caption
Image without caption

Berry Creek Principal Patsy Oxford has been overwhelmed with the support her school has received since the fire. Her plans are now to rebuild — bigger and better. (Photos by Max Whittaker for The Washington Post)

In what remains of Berry Creek School, Oxford finds reasons for optimism. The recently renovated bathrooms are mostly unscathed, prompting Oxford to send a picture to her contractor with the text, “Look, you do good work.” The red door to the middle school classroom, the one that frustrated teachers by always sticking on its hinges, juts up from a tangle of metal and concrete. School employees have taken to calling it their “door to hope.”

Almost all Berry Creek students are sticking with their online classes, logging on from motel rooms and relatives’ homes. The school’s temporary site has become a makeshift distribution center for donations; Oxford has been so deluged with offers of support, she now begs people to simply send gift cards.

When her spirits flag, Oxford imagines how she’ll rebuild. The new school will be bigger and more modern, she said, with space for performances and community gatherings. It will be made with fire-safe materials. And from the surrounding soil, enriched by the ash and debris from the North Complex Fire, new trees will begin to grow.

About this story

Editing by Monica Ulmanu and Ann Gerhart. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent.

The Post acquired drone imagery of Berry Creek School from GeoAcuity and the Butte County Sheriff's Office. The footage originated from a series collected by regional law enforcement agencies, including sheriff's offices in Contra Costa and Alameda counties and the Stockton and San Leandro police departments.

Fine-scale satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe/MAXAR. Medium-scale satellite imagery from Planet Labs.

Daily minimum temperature and vapor pressure deficit data from gridMET, a weather data set covering the contiguous United States, at a resolution of about 4 kilometers. Hourly wind data is from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Real Time Mesoscale Analysis data set. Monthly temperature records are from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.

Lightning strikes data from Vaisala. Fire detection data are from NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System. Additional fire detections are from NOAA’s GOES-17 Fire Detection and Characterization data set. Fire perimeters are from the National Interagency Fire Center.

Berry Creek building damage survey data from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Hydrography data from the USGS National Geospatial Program. Elevation data from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission. Extreme Fire Weather Index day projections are from a paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters by Michael Goss, et al. on Aug. 20.

Sarah Kaplan is a climate reporter covering humanity's response to a warming world. She previously reported on Earth science and the universe.
John Muyskens is a graphics editor at the Washington Post specializing in data reporting.
Chris Alcantara is a graphics reporter at The Washington Post, where he uses code and data to tell visual stories on a variety of subjects, including politics and technology. He joined The Post in 2016.
Andrew Freedman edits and reports on extreme weather and climate science for the Capital Weather Gang. He has covered science, with a specialization in climate research and policy, for Axios, Mashable, Climate Central, E&E Daily and other publications.