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 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 and disorganization and an occasional testy exchange with reporters.
Nonetheless, Honea's handling of both crises ultimately burnished his public image as a decisive and 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 a 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.