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Couple who died in California fire were ready to evacuate but reconsidered after 'erroneous information'

Updated 3:43 AM ET, Wed September 16, 2020

(CNN) - Two people found dead near their destroyed home were packed and ready to evacuate the North Complex Fire in Northern California last week but changed their minds based on erroneous information, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Tuesday.

Six days ago, Philip Ruble, 68, was found inside of burned-up Toyota pickup at the home and Millicent Catarncuic, 77 was found in a nearby embankment, according to the sheriff.

"After speaking to family members, it is believed the pair was aware of the fire in the area," Honea said. "They had packed their belongings in preparation to evacuate but later decided not to evacuate based on erroneous information that the fire was 51% contained."

The pair lived in Berry Creek, which has been all but decimated by the Bear Fire, part of the North Complex.

Berry Creek was under an evacuation order as of 3:15 p.m. PT last Tuesday. The information was posted on social media sites and on the fire information line, and transmitted via ham radio. Deputies also went through the area with evacuation sirens and door to door where possible, Butte County spokeswoman Megan McCann told CNN.

It is unknown where the couple saw or heard the containment figure. The number is not typically part of evacuation orders. The fire also quickly grew the day the couple died.

The North Complex Fire has caused 15 fatalities, with 13 people currently unaccounted for. It has been burning for close to a month and is the eighth largest in California history, having charred 273,000 acres and burned down more than 780 structures, including the Berry Creek Elementary School.

One firefighter has been injured.

Man survives flames but loses farm

Eddie Campos watched helplessly as flames raced toward his family farm in Jamul, California.

"We called for air support. We called for ground support. We called for chopper support. And we couldn't get no help at all," Campos said.

"We tried to get all our personal belongings. And I told our kids, 'It's time, and our lives are in danger now.' It's just a horrible experience, seeing this fireball headed toward us. It was devastating."

Soon, his farm was engulfed in flames. But his family was lucky. At least 34 people have died in the Western wildfires, which have torched more than 4.7 million acres. That's more land than six Rhode Islands.

The National Interagency Fire Center said at least 87 wildfires are burning in 11 states. Many are filling the sky with choking smoke and pushing firefighters beyond exhaustion.

"We have so many brave firefighters who are working unending hours to try to contain these fires," Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said Tuesday.

"We are living through an unprecedented situation here on the West Coast and in California."

Before Campos and his family fled, "we went down the street to help a neighbor rescue eight horses," Campos said.

"We grabbed nine dogs. We helped get some chickens out -- I think there were about nine or 10 chickens," he said. "It's a real tight community, and we worked together to rescue animals before we left this place."

16 people are missing in Oregon

Near the Beachie Creek fire east of Salem, Oregon, Scott Fogarty has no idea what happened to his longtime friend George Atiyeh. But he knows what happened to Atiyeh's property.

"His home was completely lost, and his shop," Fogarty said, holding photos of his friend.

Atiyeh is among at least 16 people missing in the Oregon wildfires, which have already killed eight people in the state.

Officials had said 10 people died, but two sets of recovered remains turned out to be those of animals, according to Paula Negele of the state's Office of Emergency Management.

Authorities fear more deaths. A mobile medical examiner facility has been set up in Linn County because of wildfires in the area, said Capt. Timothy Fox, a spokesman for the Oregon State Police.

He said this is the first time a mobile morgue of that kind has ever been needed.

A nurse packs for evacuation, then goes back to work

Betty Stevens and Fred Andrews packed in the dark as the fire approached their home near Medford, Oregon. They weren't quite sure whether they should leave, but a police car went down the street urging people over the loudspeaker to leave.

They did, but Stevens went back to work at a hospital where she is a respiratory therapist in the neonatal intensive care unit. She helped evacuate young patients.

"It was better than sitting in my friend's home and thinking about what could be happening," she told CNN's Brooke Baldwin. "I was extremely concerned that the fire obviously would come to the hospital and that we'd have the adequate staff to evacuate premature babies who are dependent on oxygen."

The next day, Stevens went by the neighborhood. The homes were gone. She went to their lot. It was ashes and rubble. The creek in the backyard was dried up.

"Nothing was really recognizable," she said. "It didn't feel like my home. It just felt like just pain. It was just very painful to see."

The 36 victims include a boy and his grandmother

At least 25 people have died in the California wildfires. The Butte County Sheriff's Office has identified seven victims of the North Complex Fire, who ranged in age from 16 to 70 and died in Berry Creek.

The eight people killed in Oregon included 13-year-old Wyatt Tofte and his grandmother, Peggy Mosso.

And in Washington state, one child was killed, Gov. Jay Inslee said.

Oregon Emergency Management Director Andrew Phelps urged those who are evacuating to register with the American Red Cross so officials and loved ones will know they're safe.

"If you're concerned for missing family, please report that concern to the local law enforcement entity," he said.

Washington air quality is 'oppressive'

In Washington, the air quality is more than uncomfortable. Inslee called it "oppressive."

"It remains unhealthy at best, and hazardous at worst," Inslee added.

In fact, parts of the West Coast now have the worst air quality in the world, according to the air quality monitoring group IQAir.

Inslee said the wildfires, which have burned 620,000 acres (about 970 square miles) in the state, have resulted in the most consecutive days of hazardous air quality since the state began regular monitoring nearly two decades ago.


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