Wildfire photographer reflects on the North Complex Fire near Oroville, Berry Creek

2020 marks a new, unimaginable normal for wildfires in California

The scene near Berrry Creek, California on September 9, 2020 - photo: Josh Edelson/the Ally

The North Complex Fire has been burning for 33 days as of this writing. Nearly 300,000 combined acres in Plumas and Butte counties have burned. The conflagration stretches forty miles from Oroville to Quincy, California. And while fire fighters gradually gain control over the vast complex of fires, 15 people have died and more than 1,200 structures have been destroyed.

On September 8, officials divided the vast North Complex Fire into three zones; North, South, and West. Josh Edelson is a freelance photographer based in the Bay Area who has been shooting the North Complex Fire West Zone for the Wall Street Journal and other outlets. Edelson visited Oroville and Berry Creek, the scene of massive destruction.

On this edition of the Wild Hare, we chat with Josh Edelson about his recent work.

(See music credits below podcast transcript)

The North Complex Fire grew at an extraordinary rate. Dry conditions and mercurial winds made for a giant, fast-moving and unpredictable complex of wildfires. Such a blaze could outflank an unsuspecting observer or firefighter. What about safety?  

“In the state of California, media is allowed to go pretty much wherever firefighters go. However, it’s super important that we abide by very similar rules as they do. So for example, we wear what they wear as a fire photographer, so I’m wearing the yellow Nomex suit, the fire retardant suit, or fire protective rather (suit), helmet, goggles, gloves, fire, shelter, boots, the whole get up.  

“And it’s always important to always try to make sure that I have an exit, wherever I’m at. So for example, if fire is approaching, and there’s only one road and it looks like it could cut me off, then I need to get out of there before I get trapped in. So like there’s a number of different sort of conditional rules that I follow. Many of them are self imparted in order to keep myself safe.” 

For more than a decade, climate scientists have warned that wildfires across the western United States will increase in frequency, size, and intensity. Data bears that out in alarming detail. Anecdotally, Edelson says wildfires have become noticeably more intense in recent years.

“So I’ve been covering fires for, I don’t know, close to seven years or so. And I can say that every year, it seems to get, I’ll say, more intense, for lack of a better way to put it. It seems to change every year. I guess just when you think you understand fire behavior, a fire comes along, that sort of breaks all the rules. This one was really extraordinary. The North Complex, because as you may know, it started something like three weeks ago, from the barrage of lightning that came through, which is in and of itself an extraordinary climate event, to have such a crazy amount of lightning come through the Bay Area. I know, on rare occasion, lightning will hit the Bay Area, but it was something like 2,800 lightning strikes recorded in a single day, unprecedented. So naturally, that started a huge amount of fires.  

“Firefighters were spread really thin because there were so many fires, partially, I think because of COVID, although I don’t really have any details or information about that. But I think that’s probably part of it. And because of that, as these fires are raging, there just was not enough fire personnel to effectively stop the spread. So that in combination with the fact that a huge wind event came on the heels of a big heat wave was kind of a nasty combination.” 

The North Complex fire spread at a frightening and unexpected rate of speed. Even in a post Paradise California, many were surprised with how fast the fire grew. 

“A lot of the residents in Berry Creek, in Oroville, probably heard about this fire, like way up near Quincy or wherever it was and thought ‘Oh, that’s 30 miles away from here, we’re fine.’ And then 6 hours later it’s nipping at their house. So I mean, that is a pretty extraordinary speed that this thing spread.  

“And the same thing also happened with a number of other fires during this barrage like on the Creek Fire in Southern California for example. Multiple fire tornadoes were reported. It turned into a pyro cumulonimbus ash plume which basically generates lightning within the ash plume and fire tornadoes and it starts new spot fires all throughout the area. And it’s extremely difficult for firefighters to stop when that type of condition happens.” 

A map of building destruction in the Berry Creek are near Oroville, California – image: NASA, NGA, USGS, FEMA

In the context of these apocalyptic scenes, Edelson went to Berry Creek, roughly 10 miles northeast of Oroville, to the frontline of the fire as it roared toward more populated areas.  

“I first arrived near that area and the flames were jumping the road. There was a major vehicle accident that I had heard of where a woman was trapped in a car that flipped upside down and she was trying to escape the flames.  

“And then crossing over that bridge, a lot of that area was totally impassable. So even for me and for firefighters, a lot of fire personnel were just pulling out of the area because up in that Berry Creek area, the roads are narrow, trees are incredibly dense, or rather, the forest is very dense. So the trees are very close together. They’re very tall. And when fire spreads through an area like that, there’s just no defensible space. And so it was just a really, really difficult situation for firefighters. So yeah, it was definitely very gnarly up there.” 

The Oroville area to include Berry Creek are near the town of Paradise. California has a rich legacy of fire destruction, and even though many lives and structures were lost to the North Complex Fire recently, did the nearby experience of Paradise and other massive wildfires help residents better prepare? 

“I think so,” Edelson said. “I think people understand that fire in California is something to be aware of and something that can be dangerous. Yesterday, I was on assignment for the Wall Street Journal, a story about a few community members in the Berry Creek area that had been wanting to thin the forest area near the road in anticipation of possible fire coming. So they knew and they were attempting to do that.  

“But the story follows that they hit some red tape. They were unable to get the job done. And basically nothing happened in terms of thinning the forest for fire safety, and then the fire came through and destroyed the whole town.  

So it’s a sad irony that that happened in that particular story. It illustrates it well. But it also is a good example of showing how the community members know about the dangers of fire. They’ve, I assume that they’ve learned a lot from hearing the many stories that come out of Paradise and the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa and the scores of other fires.  

So I don’t think it’s necessarily an issue of people being unaware or not caring about fire. I think it’s more that the fire behavior has become so erratic and difficult to control that there’s almost no stopping it in certain circumstances.” 

A map of building destruction around Oroville, California from the North Complex Fire – image: NASA, NGA, USGS, FEMA

With recent news of tornadoes of fire discharging bolts of lightning and the North Complex fire gobbling tens of thousands of acres in hours, Edelson says there is a new, disturbing normal regarding wildfires. He says the capture of a pyro cumulonimbus ash plume discharging lightening on video is a bad sign. 

And not just a little, hot dust devil but an F4 tornado, a force that would by virtue of wind speed alone, according to the Fujita Tornado Damage Scale, level well-constructed houses. Structures with weak foundations would be blown away; vehicles thrown long distances, and large missiles sent flying. But unlike a tornado in Kansas, this one was made of hot ash, a spinning pyroclastic funnel that spawned more and more fires. 

“That was one of the first like really well documented fire tornado events, at least in California. I know that they do happen sometimes. But it’s rare that it gets captured on both on video and photos.  

“When that happened, it was like, wait, what is this? There’s a fire tornado? How does this work? It killed a couple of firefighters. It threw cars places. I mean, it was equivalent to an F4 fire tornado. Or it was an F4 basically. And that was the Carr Fire back then. And so at that time, the general consensus was okay, this is incredibly rare but something we should be aware of. But then this year, it seems like this has become the new normal that there are pyro cumulonimbus ash plumes that developed that means it’s basically like a big giant supercell storm system that is creating these updrafts. And within it is dry lightning, and fire tornadoes come from those types of circumstances. So just kind of like a supercell storm system, but it’s generated from the fire itself. And so it is extraordinary. Or at least I thought it was, and now this year, this seems to be something that is happening more and more often. So maybe this is the new normal.

“I’ve visited Butte County Fire Station 62 up in Berry Creek north and near the northern part of Berry Creek that burned down. And it’s a volunteer firefighter station. So 2 of the volunteer firefighters showed up to the station, and I was able to photograph them kind of searching through the rubble with the burned fire trucks still parked in what used to be the garage. And one of the firefighters found a bicycle that was his son’s that burned. And so watching them kind of go through that was pretty impossible. There is a dead deer on the property as well. And then, and that was right across the street from a burned elementary school as well. So that was definitely impactful.  

The North Complex Fire devastated Berry Creek. Berry Creek Elementary School burned to the ground. On a personal level, Edelson says bearing witness to these scenes of loss and destruction have a distinct emotional toll. The suffering of animals is especially difficult. 

“I came across an injured cat that was completely covered in ash and burns and it was sort of meowing on the side of the road. And it just kind of struck me emotionally. And I pulled over and I tried to give him some water. It didn’t, wouldn’t drink. And I ended up flagging down a guy that was driving down the road that happened to be a Fish and Wildlife Lieutenant and convinced him to take the cat out and I still don’t know if it survived or not but I got some photos and videos of that and and like it was really it really kind of made me feel crappy about the whole circumstance.  

“Often when you’re up there like it’s sort of empty. I mean, it’s one thing to see a burned down home. Most of the people you assume are out, but animals just don’t really have much of a chance. So I don’t know, I feel really bad for everyone.” 


Music credits as reported to the Public Radio Exchange, in order of appearance: 

Song: Swanky
Artist: Brian Eno
Album: The Drop
Label: Thirsty Ear Recordings
Date: 1997
Duration: 2:04 

Song: Slip, Dip
Artist: Brian Eno
Album: The Drop
Label: Thirsty Ear Recordings
Date: 1997
Duration: 2:18 

Song: But If
Artist: Brian Eno
Album: The Drop
Label: Thirsty Ear Recordings
Date: 1997
Duration: 1:48  

Song: Hazard
Artist: Brian Eno
Album: The Drop
Label: Thirsty Ear Recordings
Date: 1997
Duration: 1:44 

Song: Back Clack
Artist: Brian Eno
Album: The Drop
Label: Thirsty Ear Recordings
Date: 1997
Duration: 2:10 

Song: Climate Study (2005 Digital Remaster)
Artist: Brian Eno
Album: More Music for Films
Label: Virgin Records
Date: 1983
Duration: 2:27 

Song: Drift Study (2005 Digital Remaster)
Artist: Brian Eno
Album: More Music for Films
Label: Virgin Records
Date: 1983
Duration: 2:18 

Song: MC Organ
Artist: Brian Eno
Album: The Drop
Label: Thirsty Ear Recordings
Date: 1997
Duration: 2:48