Northern California sheriff's star rises with relief roles

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CHICO, Calif. (AP) - Those who had fled a deadly Northern California wildfire were looking for answers at an evacuation center when Sheriff Kory Honea walked in. They jumped to their feet, clapped and cheered.

The Butte County sheriff came to watch a recent briefing by a state official, but as the public face of the force fighting the flames and bringing relief to those who lost everything, he's a star attraction.

"He's become larger than life," said Paradise Councilman Michael Zuccolillo, who stayed behind to help Honea evacuate the town of 27,000 as flames roared in Nov. 8. "He's enormously popular."

Internet memes describing Honea as a hero are sweeping social media, including one saying his "calendar skips April 1 because nobody fools Honea." Residents of the predominantly rural and Republican-leaning region post hundreds of comments of support on the sheriff department's Facebook page. National and international media outlets clamor for interviews.

The 48-year-old was already a well-liked and high-profile figure among many of the 220,000 residents of Butte County, a wooded region in the Sierra Nevada foothills that's a destination for hunters and fishermen about 175 miles (282 kilometers) north of San Francisco.

That's because the wildfire is the second major disaster in less than two years in which he's had a major role. In February 2017, a spillway at the nation's tallest dam threatened to collapse and send a torrent of water flooding into downstream communities.

During both disasters, Honea ordered thousands of residents to flee their homes. And both led to complaints of miscommunication, disorganization and an occasional testy exchange with reporters.

Nonetheless, Honea's handling of both crises ultimately burnished his public image as a decisive and a strong leader after just four years with a small law enforcement agency previously tasked largely with cracking down on poaching, illicit drug use and drunken drivers.

That changed as state officials dithered last year over evacuating residents below Oroville Dam in Butte County, The Associated Press reported after obtaining notes from a dramatic meeting of top authorities.

Honea was about to leave a briefing on the damage when he saw drone photos of an emergency spillway that crumbled in recent rain and heard the worried discussion.

Without waiting for California officials, Honea ordered residents living below the dam to evacuate. Other sheriffs issued similar orders affecting nearly 180,000 people.

Residents sat in traffic jams for hours, with some abandoning their cars. Others ran out of gas on the highway. While many local officials and ordinary people rushed to direct traffic and staff emergency shelters, evacuees also reported seeing fistfights on gridlocked roads.

Notes obtained by the AP say Honea called the situation an "ugly, s-----, mess and we are trying to make the best of it."

Eventually, the dam crisis was averted and residents were allowed to return home, though many complained of a lack of communication throughout their ordeal.

"It was the most stressful time of my life," Honea said.

That was until Nov. 8. He was sipping coffee at home that morning, watching his friend, Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean, on TV discussing a mass shooting the night before at a country music bar in suburban Los Angeles.

Honea said he was counting his blessings that all was calm in Butte County. Then the office called.

Within hours, he ordered the evacuation of some 40,000 residents living in and around the isolated town of Paradise as an uncontrollable wildfire bore down.

The evacuation was anything but smooth. The sheriff has been criticized for relying on an outdated Code Red system that requires opting in to alerts rather than a mass Amber Alert-style warning that pings nearly every cellphone, TV and radio in the area.

Many residents complained that they didn't receive notice from the sheriff and fled only after neighbors and family warned them.

"My neighbor started screaming for us to run, and that's all the warning we got," said Paradise resident Cora Kolacz. "I left with the clothes on my back, and that's it."

Honea has deflected most questions on the evacuation, saying he will address them later, but conceded that "no system works 100 percent." He also says many more could have died.

"I'm really disheartened by all the loss of life," Honea said of the fire that killed nearly 90 people. "But tens of thousands of residents evacuated safely."

He spent a surreal morning in the burning city, combating one crisis at a time. He enlisted a stranger to help with traffic control. He swapped five Chinese tourists he had picked up for a pregnant woman in labor, whom he managed to hand off to a passing nurse and National Forest Service ranger heading to Chico.

Then he ran into his daughter Kassidy, a Paradise police officer, directing traffic. He helped her until he heard deputies and residents were trapped in a nearby hardware store. Honea hugged his 23-year-old daughter and raced to the store, concerned that he would never see his only child again.

She survived the fire.

Honea joined the sheriff's department in 1993 and worked his way up from jail guard to detective in three years. That caught the eye of longtime District Attorney Mike Ramsey.

"One of his strengths was his ability to get confessions," Ramsey said. "He knows how to talk to people and convince them to act in their best interests."

Ramsey hired Honea as an investigator in 2005 and appointed him chief investigator three years later. Honea passed the notoriously difficult California bar exam on his first try after earning a law degree online.

"That is an extraordinarily difficult way to become a lawyer," Ramsey said.

Ramsey says his former protege, who was appointed sheriff in 2014, has come a long way to become the "hero sheriff of Butte County."

Honea received another standing ovation Monday when he walked into a Chico high school gym to give teachers a pep talk as they prepare to restart classes.

"We have a long way to go," he said amid applause. "But we are in this together, and we will get through this together."

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