Berry Creek residents John and Sandy Butler were loving great-grandparents who died seeking safe haven in a nearby pond as flames from the North Complex Fire overtook them before they could find refuge in the water.
Fighting for survival until the very end, the couple’s granddaughter-in-law Jessica Fallon said that she finds solace in knowing they died the way they lived: together.
“What’s comforting about it is to know that they weren’t alone, that they were together,” she said. “The way I see it is that God works in mysterious ways and has a reasoning for everything so maybe he just took both of them from us because he knew both of them couldn’t make it without each other.”
John, 79, and Sandy, 75, were devoted great-grandparents who valued family, she said.
“They were just really good people, especially the grandmother, she always made sure to put all of us first and the whole family first,” Fallon said. “They both loved their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to pieces.”
Fallon said the couple had no form of transportation at the time evacuation orders began for their area Sept. 8.
“They were trying to get to a pond in a nearby neighbor’s back yard and they said they were going to try to get in the pond and submerge themselves. That way they didn’t burn alive,” Fallon said. “They were going to wait for the fire to pass through and they were about halfway there where rescuers found their bodies. They were almost there but they didn’t quite make it.”
An Aug. 17 lightning storm caused multiple fires in Northern California, and two of those fires, the Claremont and Bear Fires, merged on Sept. 5 to create the North Complex Fire.
On Sept. 8, the North Complex Fire “entered Butte County with a vengeance, driven by extreme winds, heavy dry fuels, and steep terrain,” according to Cal Fire. A total of 15 people, including the Butlers, have died in the fire as of Thursday morning.
Fallon said the Butlers knew about the evacuation orders that came down the afternoon of Sept. 8 but had nowhere to go and were trapped when their son, also named John Butler, was unable to circle back to pick them up following a doctor’s appointment.
“What happened was he went to town for a doctor’s appointment, there was no evacuation order at the time and when he was at the doctor, that’s when they issued the evacuation,” Fallon said. “He went, and he told the police that were blocking the road on Skyline, he told them ‘I need to get up there, my parents are up there, they’re elderly and they can’t drive so I really need to get to them’ and they told him sorry and that they couldn’t let him back up there.”
Once informed that their son would not be able to pick them up, the Butlers made several calls, notifying family members of their decision to try and make it to the nearby pond as the flames reached their property.
“Detectives obtained the Butlers’ phone records and determined that the Butlers’ last known location was near their residence on Wailaki Court in Berry Creek,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said during the daily North Complex Fire briefing on Sept. 14. “Searchers located both individuals in that area and they were positively identified through DNA. My sincerest condolences go out to the Butler family.”
John Butler had a passion for maintaining his property, continuing to cut down trees and doing yard work regularly up until his death.
“He was a very hard-working, very good man who was stubborn, so I know he didn’t go down without a fight,” Fallon said. “My grandfather, he just really liked to work on his property. He was out there cutting down trees and he really cared about making his place look nice up there.”
North Complex Fire: One person still missing; at least 635 homes destroyed
Sandra Butler was known for being family-oriented, reaching out to her great-granddaughter multiple times each day just to stay in contact.
“My grandmother, she really just liked to spend time with her great-grandchildren, my daughter actually was her best friend,” Fallon said. “She would talk to my daughter on the phone three times a day, if not more than that, and even if they talked 10 minutes ago they would talk 20 minutes later. She really cared about all her grandchildren.”
“They were both really good people and they would always put others first before themselves and I’m a good example of that,” Fallon said. “I mean, I’m not blood but I was welcomed with open arms like I was their own grandchild. They loved everyone that way.”
According to Cal Fire, the North Complex Fire stood at 284,437 acres as of Thursday night. Located approximately 75 miles north of Sacramento between the cities of Quincy and Oroville, the fire is currently 40% contained.
Follow reporter Terell Wilkins on Twitter, @terelljwilkins, call him at 252-367-8463 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support his work and the resources used to create it by subscribing to the Reno Gazette-Journal.