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North Complex West Zone: Missing Couple Identified As Fire Victims; New Body Recovered; Death Toll Grows To 15

CHICO (CBS SF/AP) -- The bodies of a missing Berry Creek couple, who told relatives during frantic call as flames roared through their Butte County mountain community that they would try to escape the fire by sheltering in a nearby pond, were identified Monday, tragically ending their family's hopes that they had survived.

Butte County Sheriff Korey Honea said the bodies of Jonathan Butler and his wife, Sandra, were discovered near their home.

"On the night of Sept. 9th, a family member of Jon Butler, 79, and Sandra Butler, 75, called to say that they had not heard from Jon and Sandra," Honea said. "The family members had spoken to the Butlers during the fire. The Butlers told the family members they were going to seek refuge at a pond near their residence."

"Detectives obtained Butler's phone records and determined that the Butlers last known location was near the residence," he continued. "Searchers located both individuals in that area and they were positively identified through DNA. My sincerest condolences to the family."

In the hours after the blaze, Jessica Fallon, who has two children with the Butler's grandson and considers them her own grandparents, had told the Associated Press the family was praying that the couple had survived.

"We're still hoping and praying for good news," she said at the time. "Everything is replaceable, but not my grandparents' lives. I'd rather lose everything than those two. They kind of held the family together."

Unfortunately, Honea also had more tragic news for the family of 77-year-old Millicent Catarancuic, who was the first victim identified on Saturday. Her body was found down an embankment.

Catarancuic lived with two other family members -- Philip Rubel and Suzan Violet Zurz -- in Berry Creek. Honea said Rubel's body was discovered inside a burned out Toyota pickup. Another set of remains was recovered near a second vehicle found resting against a rock close to the pickup and has yet to be positively identified.

"After speaking with family members," Honea said. "It is believed the decedents were aware of the fire in the area. They had packed their belongings in preparation to evacuate. But later decided not to evacuate based on erroneous information that the fire was 51 percent contained."

Zygy Roe-Zurz, Catarancuic's son, told CBS Sacramento on Sunday that he was bracing for the worse.

"(There was) a news article of a truck saying three are dead off of the road where our family lives," he said. "I recognized that picture right away as my uncle's truck."

Honea said one other body had also been identified in Berry Creek as 26-year-old Jorge Hernandez-Juarez. He also said the search teams have recovered the remains of a fifteenth victim. Honea said two still remain missing.

On Sunday, survivors of the fire told frightening tales of their panicked escape from Berry Creek as the wall of flames roared through, early Wednesday. Particularly of encountering a traffic jam on the two-lane bridge leading out of town.

The blaze had traveled 30 miles over an 18-hour stretch after it jumped over the fire lines Tuesday, leaving in its wake a path of death and destruction. Squarely in fire's path was Berry Creek — an unincorporated town of about 1,200 people.

Among those trying to escape were Misty Spires and her boyfriend, Jonathan Gonzales, who had spent time Tuesday night trying to save their home and other structures with a fire hose from the volunteer fire department hooked up to a hydrant.

But by 4 a.m. Wednesday, they decided it was time to go. Propane tanks began exploding and they were dodging embers "as big as my feet," Spires told the Associated Press on Sunday.

They didn't get far before they ran into a jammed two-lane bridge leading out of town.

"It was like a war zone, like standing in the breath of hell," Spires said.

Sensing that they needed to do something quickly, Spires and her boyfriend guided others to a muddy sandbar north of Lake Oroville. Gonzalez knew the area was clear of trees and close to the water and told the drivers caught in the jam getting out of Berry Creek to follow him.

"He told the others, 'If you want to live instead of sitting on this bridge follow me,'" she said. "He saved a lot of lives."

Once there, Spires said most people stayed huddled in their cars. But others got out and consoled each other.

"There wasn't much that you can say in that situation but to say, 'I'm glad you're alive,'" Spires said.

Others were not so lucky. The bodies of at least eight fire victims have been found among the rubble of what was once Berry Creek. Honea would not disclose where the other seven bodies had been found.

By Monday evening, the Bear Creek Fire portion of the North Complex stood at 76,900 acres, was 20 percent contained and had destroyed at least 376 homes and 45 commercial structures.

© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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