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'It's Been a Blur': Butte County Sheriff Looks Back on Camp Fire One Month Later

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Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea. (Mercury News/YouTube)

It's been four weeks since the deadliest and most destructive blaze in modern California history swept through parts of Butte County, killing at least 85 people and destroying nearly 14,000 homes.

For many victims of the Camp Fire, the past month has been endless: days spent in shelters, tents, hotels and trailers; hours spent waiting in line to sign up for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency at an abandoned Sears building at the Chico mall; evenings spent online waiting for updates from local officials on the death toll and the number of people still missing.

For Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, those 28 days have been different — an odd combination of unending and fleeting.

"It's been a blur, honestly," he said in an interview with KQED at the Sheriff's office in Oroville, 20-some miles from the town of Paradise, which was almost entirely destroyed by the blaze. "I can't really even believe it's been four weeks."

Since the fire hit, Sheriff Honea has become a sort of local rockstar. He's been the voice of emergency response, the person residents saw every evening on TV in the aftermath of the blaze, giving updates on evacuations and fatalities — and later, updates on the search for human remains.

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Butte County residents see him as the top cop who's always there. When new evacuations were ordered due to flooding, well after the Camp Fire was already contained, Honea was out on the street with first responders working to rescue people who were stranded in their cars. There's even been a number of memes posted online to honor the sheriff's work, some of them comparing him to Chuck Norris.

As for time with his family?

"Not much," he said. "But I'm not complaining about that. My job is to respond to these things and to hopefully provide leadership to my community." Honea said he hasn't taken a day off since the blaze ignited, and he's looking forward to when he can spend time with his wife and daughter.

When discussing the first few hours of the Camp Fire and his agency's response to it, Sheriff Honea speaks with surprise and awe of the pace at which the blaze grew. Butte County had dealt with fires in the area previously, and, according to Honea, firefighters "were generally able to catch them."

But this blaze was different. It charred 20,000 acres in less than 14 hours, quickly spreading from a rural part of the county into Paradise and surrounding areas.

Many residents said they received no warnings of the blaze, something Butte County officials have come under scrutiny about. In terms of wireless emergency alerts, the county uses something called codeRED, which is an opt-in system, meaning you only receive evacuation alerts on your cell phone if you've signed up for the service. In addition to codeRED, the Sheriff's department uses social media and media partners to spread the word, Honea said.

In the aftermath of the blaze, the sheriff said his agency is looking at finding different systems for emergency alerts, but he also said the size and speed of the blaze made it difficult to get everyone out of the area effectively, regardless of the notification system used.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea at his desk.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea at his desk. (Jeremy Siegel/KQED)

"This fire was outrunning us in terms of our ability to notify people and get evacuations done before we even really understood we were in a race," he said. "I think that you have to understand with regard to this particular fire, it moved so rapidly that it outpaced the resources and it outpaced, in many cases, the plans that worked very well under normal circumstances."

As for lessons to be learned from Butte County's response to the Camp Fire, Honea said there are going to be a lot. And he's blunt about the fact that the county might have fallen short in some ways.

"It was an overwhelming and chaotic situation that ultimately I think we'll learn a lot of lessons from, and will help other communities," he said.

But it'll take some time before the Sheriff's Department and other county officials are able to go back and analyze their response to the tragedy. Once all the evacuation orders are lifted and people have been able to return to the burn scar, Honea hopes they'll be able to sit down and look at what can be learned. 

"I think we're still wrapping our minds around this entire event," he said.

And that means wrapping their minds around the destruction the blaze caused, something Honea is still wrestling with. Paradise is almost gone, as are parts of Magalia and Concow. Dozens of people are dead. "I think it weighs weighs on me the fact that we lost anybody," he said.

But, like much of the community, Sheriff Honea is optimistic that Paradise will rise from the ashes, noting, however, that that will come down to the community and town leaders.

"Ultimately, I do believe that Paradise will rebuild," he said, adding that a new Paradise would have to be different than it once was.

"My hope and desire is that it changes in positive ways going forward and we get to a point where it's a safe community, it's a healthy community and it's a happy community. We've got a long road ahead of us though."

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