'There was no fighting this fire,' California survivor says

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A firefighter shoots an incendiary device during a back burn to help control the Dolan Fire at Limekiln State Park in Big Sur, Calif,. Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Nic Coury)

GRIDLEY, Calif. – John Sykes built his life around his cabin in the dense woods of Northern California. He raised his two children there, expanded it and improved it over time and made it resilient to all kinds of disaster except fire.

So when the winds started howling Tuesday and the skies became so dark from smoke that he had to turn on his lights at midday, he didn’t hesitate to leave it all behind in an instant before any evacuation order.

With the disaster two years ago in nearby Paradise, in which 85 people perished in the deadliest and most destructive fire in modern state history, still fresh on his mind, Sykes got his wife and a friend into his car and left with only a change of clothes each.

“All I could do is look in the rear view mirror and see orange sky and a mushroom cloud and that told me it was hot and to keep going,” Sykes said Friday. “It was a terrifying feeling.”

Berry Creek was largely destroyed in what has become the deadliest fire of 2020, a year that has already shattered California records for the most area burned — more land than the state of Connecticut — and recorded the largest fire of all time in the state. Five of the top 10 biggest blazes in state history are still burning and fire season often gets worse in the fall.

At least nine people were killed and 19 were unaccounted for.

The Butte County Sheriff's Office initially said 10 bodies were found but reduced it on Friday because it was determined that bones found in a burned storage shed were actually a realistic-looking human skeleton model made of resin that an anthroplogy student used for study, Sheriff Kory Honea said.

The sheriff also announced that the victims included Josiah Williams, 16, of Berry Creek, who apparently died while trying to flee the flames in a vehicle.