‘This fire was outrunning us before we even knew we were in a race.’ Butte sheriff reflects on Camp Fire
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea has an American flag folded on his desk. He isn’t sure exactly where it came from, but he knows what it means.
In the chaos of the Camp Fire, one of his deputies – Honea doesn’t know which one – found it, untouched amid the smoldering wreckage somewhere in Paradise, or the surrounding towns. The deputy took it down, folded it into a triangle and brought it to the sheriff’s command center. It made its way to Honea.
“This is going to sound kind of weird and corny, but it was as if ... ” Honea said recently, pausing to collect himself. “No matter what the tragedy was, we’re going to get through this and we’re going to kind of protect that American spirit and that American way of life. I know that sounds really ridiculous, but that is what I took away from that, which is why I’ve carried the thing around.”
Disaster, if not tragedy, has dogged this rural sheriff for the past two years. It’s threatened floods and brought fire, along with the national spotlight and a bit of adoration from local and internet fans who liken the lawman to a super hero.
“He’s an incredible man and a leader like no government leader I’ve seen in my life,” said Steve Bladorn, the owner of a Chico metal-working company.
During the Camp Fire, Bladorn made an oversize steel sheriff’s badge thanking Honea. It hung for nearly a month on a fence not far from a sheriff’s substation in Chico. Honea now keeps it in his office. On the back, Bladorn wrote: “Made with love! Kory, you are an amazing man. This county loves you. Thank you for all you do!! Thank you and all the staff of Butte County. PS. Thank your wife!!”
Others are less effusive but equally sincere.
“He’s the right person at the right time,” said Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly, whose district includes the town of Concow, which was almost destroyed when the Camp Fire raged through on Nov. 8.
For weeks, fire evacuees cheered when he walked on stage at community meetings. Online memes compare Honea to legendary Hollywood action star Chuck Norris – one shows Norris sleeping in pajamas covered with Honea’s face.
Another meme reads: “In Honea we trust.”
“Santa Claus worries about being on Honea’s naughty list,” states a third one of dozens online. A company sells T-shirts with Honea’s face on them that read, “Honea is my homie.”
Despite the new-found fandom, the sheriff, who turned 48 five days after the fire, isn’t fond of talking about himself.
“To the degree that anybody cares ...” he mumbled as he sat down to speak with The Sacramento Bee earlier this month. For much of the hour-long interview, he wrung his hands in his lap. Several times, his face flushed and he laughed nervously, especially when asked about the memes. He joked that when they started to pop up online he was tempted to have one of his detectives track down the makers and tell them to stop, but he’s trying to take the infatuation in stride.
“This is a very tragic time. We’re all under a lot of stress, and these kind of make us smile,” Honea said. “If it brought a little bit of relief to people, then so be it. I’m OK with it.”
The almost flood
Honea first garnered attention during the Oroville Dam crisis in 2017.
On Feb. 7 last year, a crater formed in Oroville Dam’s main concrete spillway, as state officials released water down its half-mile long chute to make room in Lake Oroville for a drought-busting storm that was quickly filling the state’s second largest reservoir.
The Oroville Dam – the country’s tallest – towers above Oroville, Butte County’s seat, and keeps communities along the Feather River in Northern California from flooding.
State dam operators believed they had a plan to keep the lake levels safe while minimizing the damage to the dam. Fearing that increasing water releases too much would blow the concrete spillway apart, they allowed the lake to fill to the brim and water to wash over the dam’s emergency spillway, which had never been used before.
On the evening of Feb. 12, Honea was about to go home when a geologist arrived with a picture of the erosion that was beginning to chew away the earthen hillside below the emergency spillway, threatening to send the upper levels of the lake into the communities below. She showed the picture to a DWR official.
“I heard (the official) say ‘This isn’t good.’ I heard him say, ‘Does the sheriff know about this?’” Honea would later recount in a 2017 interview with The Bee.
Honea said there were close to 40 officials in a room discussing what to do.
“It sounded to me that thousands of lives are at risk, so in a loud and a rather authoritative tone, I yelled for everybody to be quiet and listen to me. ... I said, ‘It sounds to me that I need to order the evacuation of the southern part of Butte County. If there is anybody in this room who thinks that’s the wrong move or has a better idea then you need to speak up now. Tell me now.’ The room fell quiet, and everybody stayed quiet. So I said, ‘I’ve got to do this.’”
In notes state officials kept that night, Honea is described as calling the decision to evacuate like pulling “the big red handle.”
About 188,000 people were ordered to leave the area immediately. They were allowed to return home after two days once state officials were able to drain the lake down to the point water was no longer pouring over the emergency spillway.
Handwritten notes during those days show Honea clashing with state officials who thought the evacuation order should be rescinded. The idea was dropped because Honea insisted it needed to stay in place until the state could assure him the public wasn’t in jeopardy. The notes also show Honea demanding to know state officials’ credentials.
Later, Honea would say he wasn’t necessarily second-guessing the state officials. He said he was only trying to get officials to speak clearly so that he could cut through their jargon. He said he defaulted to a law enforcement officer’s “interrogation mode.”
“Engineers and geologists and hydrologists, they speak their own language,” Honea later told The Bee. “It was a stressful situation. I went to my default comfort zone which was getting people to tell me the information I needed in terms that made sense to me so that I could make the decisions I needed to make.”
But the meeting notes suggest that Honea was more than a little frustrated.
“Yesterday was scary,” Honea said the morning after the evacuation, according to meeting notes. “Thousands of people could have died. Let’s not let that happen again.”
In his interview earlier this month, Honea reflected that the state’s people were doing “the best job that they possibly could.”
“But as a state agency, there was a lot of bureaucracy involved and sometimes cutting through that was challenging,” he said.
James Gallagher, the Republican assemblyman who represents the region, said Honea’s leadership proved critical.
“After assessing the situation, he made a firm, decisive action that I think ultimately was the right one and I think saved lives,” Gallagher said.
Honea said he thought the dam crisis would be the most visible moment of his career, and he expected to serve out the remainder of his term in relative obscurity. Now that he’s again in the spotlight, he thinks of Oroville differently.
“Looking back on it now, I can’t help but think that if you believe in the idea of divine intervention and the idea that things happen for a reason, I wonder if (Oroville Dam) to some degree prepared us for what was to come later on with this fire,” Honea said.
Honea was born in the high desert town of Susanville in Lassen County, the son of a mill worker and stay-at-home mom. The family eventually moved to Anderson, near Redding, where Honea graduated high school.
He studied at Butte Community College, where he played football at the school that became famous for jump starting the career of Aaron Rodgers, a Chico native who now plays for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.
“I’m no Aaron Rodgers, by any stretch of the imagination,” Honea said.
His football skills may have reached their limits at Butte College, but Honea found his calling there in law enforcement courses. After graduating with an associates degree, he landed a job with the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office, working in the jail. He was laid off after a year due to budget cuts, but he was hired as a Butte County sheriff’s deputy. He was eventually promoted to detective and worked on homicide cases.
“I enjoyed that work not because of the subject matter, but because I felt like it was very meaningful and it was bringing justice for victims who couldn’t otherwise speak for themselves,” he said. “I know that sounds strange to enjoy a caseload of that nature.”
Around that time, Honea started dating the woman who later became his wife, Jennifer. She worked as a records clerk for the sheriff’s department and eventually became a dispatcher.
Honea left the department for awhile to become an investigator for the Butte County District Attorney’s Office, where he worked his way up to become the DA’s chief investigator.
Honea’s friend and former boss, District Attorney Mike Ramsey, said Honea was a skilled investigator and natural leader. But Ramsey said he was especially impressed that Honea was able to get a law degree through an online correspondence course. He passed the bar exam on his first try.
“He became an attorney in the most difficult of ways,” Ramsey said. “That takes incredible discipline.”
Honea said he spent much of five years he was in school staying up until the early morning hours studying law. Often, he said, he’d even study while watching his only daughter, Kassidy, play in her high school volleyball and basketball games.
“It was a big sacrifice, although I’m glad that I did it because it certainly has opened doors for me,” Honea said. “I practice or utilize the knowledge that I gained through that process every single day as sheriff.”
In 2010, Honea’s predecessor, Jerry Smith, asked him to become his undersheriff, a position he held until Smith retired in 2014. Honea was appointed to fill out the remainder of Smith’s term. He’s run unopposed the past two elections.
Then came fire
On Nov. 8, Honea was sipping coffee at home in Chico when Jennifer called from the dispatch center where she was on duty to tell him a fire was burning in Pulga, 10 miles from Paradise.
Honea wasn’t that concerned at first. But fueled by 40 mph winds, the Camp Fire’s flames were raging into eastern Paradise within an hour.
As a huge plume of black smoke filled the air, Honea drove toward Paradise and saw traffic at a crawl. He grabbed his flashlight and directed drivers to safety.
Honea spotted Kassidy, 23, who had followed in her father’s footsteps to become a Paradise police officer. She was directing traffic, too.
A call came in: Deputies and residents were trapped in a hardware store. The sheriff had to go. He wondered if he would see his daughter again.
“I gave her a hug and told her ‘bye’ and off I went,” Honea said.
His deputies at the hardware store were able to escape. None of his deputies were hurt in the fire, though 42 employees – about one in 10 members of Honea’s department – lost homes.
After the flames abated, Paradise and the surrounding towns were almost entirely gone. More than 13,000 homes were destroyed, which represented nearly 90 percent of the area’s housing stock.
At least 86 people died.
Honea would spend the next three weeks after the Camp Fire attending community meetings, quelling rumors and sometimes testily answering questions from reporters at news conferences streamed live around the world. He made an appearance on “60 Minutes.” He oversaw the evacuation orders that stayed in place for nearly a month.
As Butte County’s coroner, he was in charge of the teams searching for bodies in the rubble and trying to identity them.
Despite the stress and hardship, many residents praise Honea’s leadership.
“We love our Sheriff Honea. We trust him,” said Alicia Moore, 50, who, along with her husband Jim, were picking through the rubble of their home recently after being kept out for nearly a month because of Honea’s evacuation order. “Sheriff Honea did the best.”
Lawsuits and disputes
Honea’s department has faced controversy.
In 2015, a former deputy named Michael Sears, who is half black, sued the sheriff and his department alleging he suffered years of discrimination and harassment from colleagues that included being subjected to racist comments.
Sears alleged, in one example, that someone hung a plastic toy panda bear by its wrist where he could see it. In his suit, Sears alleged a fellow deputy told him the panda was a reference to him being half black.
The case settled last month. The county paid Sears $654,000.
Two years earlier, Honea’s department settled a case in which three women were paid a total of $208,000 after they alleged they were subjected to sexual contact by jail deputies while in custody. Two of Honea’s jail deputies, Ryan Woolery and Timothy Hill, were fired and charged with crimes.
Hill in 2015 pleaded no contest to a charge of sexual contact with an inmate. Woolery in 2017 pleaded guilty to similar charges.
Honea’s department also has been sued for a controversial police shooting earlier this year.
In April, two of Honea’s deputies shot Myra Lisa Micalizio, 56, at a home in rural Palermo about 20 seconds after arriving at the scene for a report of someone refusing to leave and making threats to shoot people, according to the sheriff’s department.
Micalizio wasn’t armed, but investigators said she tried to hit the deputies with her car and didn’t respond to the their commands to stop. Micalizo had no criminal record in Butte County.
Her daughter, Hali McKelvie, said Micalizio struggled with mental health issues, including schizophrenia, but she wasn’t a violent person.
“She wasn’t a thug. She wasn’t a drug addict,” McKelvie said. “My mother wasn’t a menace to society.”
Micalizio’s family has has since filed a wrongful death suit. Ramsey, the district attorney, hasn’t yet finished his investigation into whether the use of force was legally justified.
McKelvie, who lives in Michigan, said she has watched from afar Honea’s leadership through the Camp Fire, which also burned some homes of her family members. She has mixed feelings about the sheriff.
“I understand the community response (to Honea). I do,” McKelvie said. “He’s a hero. I totally understand that. But let’s look at how they respond to alleged criminal activity. ‘Let’s shoot and ask questions later.’
“I don’t want to be resentful to a leader in a county that just had a devastating loss of citizens and homes and businesses, and a whole community,” she said. “But my mother was ... murdered.”
Without addressing the shooting directly, Honea said officers often find themselves second guessed for having to use deadly force.
“It’s unfortunate we’re put in those situations at times, but that’s part of the job that we have,” Honea said.
The inevitable controversies are why Honea said he’s not letting the goodwill he’s receiving now go to his head (and he said he has no plans to run for higher office). He knows the overwhelming support won’t last forever.
“I’m in a business that no matter what I do – no matter what decision I make – I’m going to make somebody angry,” he said.