Robert Catalano wept when he saw the twisted remains of the Honey Run Covered Bridge resting in Butte Creek below.
The Camp Fire had consumed the 132-year-old structure about a week earlier, and Catalano and a county crew descended on the bridge’s location east of Chico to clear rubble from the creek’s bed ahead of upcoming rains that threatened to sweep debris downstream.
“Tears came to my eyes,” Catalano, president of the Honey Run Covered Bridge Association (HRCBA), recently told the CN&R. “I’ve put a lot of my life in the last few years into [upgrading the bridge and park facilities]. People had told me that … the park and the bridge and everything was better than it had ever been.”
Now, Catalano says the HRCBA, a nonprofit organization, is pursuing a plan to facilitate a historical reconstruction of the wooden bridge, a local landmark that had been a popular wedding and entertainment venue and picnic spot.
The association, Catalano said, has been in talks with Butte County staff to acquire the county-owned right-of-way across Butte Creek where the bridge once stood. Doing so would allow the group to take ownership of the bridge’s estimated $3 million reconstruction, which Catalano said could be completed in about two years without any direct governmental funding.
“We can build it faster, and we can build it better, and we can build it cheaper [than the government],” Catalano said.
The association’s plan has been developed following seven months of exploring various reconstruction possibilities—including working with an engineering firm—but it hinges on approval from the Butte County Board of Supervisors to transfer the bridge right-of-way. Catalano said he hopes the board will consider that sometime in September.
Dennis Schmidt, the county’s public works director, told the CN&R he expects the matter to go before the board in the next several months, and one of the key questions will be whether the HRCBA has the capacity to facilitate a reconstruction of the bridge. Schmidt said once the right-of-way is transferred—which both Catalano and Schmidt suggested could happen at a nominal cost—it would be difficult for the county, should it desire, to go back and rebuild the bridge itself.
Schmidt added, however, that from everything he’s seen so far, the association has done a “great job” garnering support for the bridge’s rebuild, raising money and pursuing reconstruction plans.
A county reconstruction of the bridge is low on the priority list, the public works director said. The county, he said, is pursuing “hundreds of projects” the size of a potential bridge rebuild that are more urgent. Schmidt noted that since about the 1960s, the covered bridge has been a recreational amenity used for entertainment and wedding purposes, “but the county isn’t in the wedding business.”
The public, Schmidt said, would have a right to be heard on any consideration of a right-of-way transfer.
Catalano recalls fleeing his home in Butte Creek Canyon the morning of the Camp Fire, stopping at the covered bridge on his way out. He’d intended to make sure the water pump there was turned on so a sprinkler system affixed to the bridge would douse the wood and tin structure with water if the fire neared. He found, however, that the power was out. The bridge, he said, burned that evening.
“PG&E, I think, cut the power,” Catalano said. “When the power got cut off, the sprinklers got cut off.”
PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno told the CN&R that the utility did not conduct a public safety power shutoff the day of the Camp Fire. If power was lost at the bridge location, Moreno said, it was either because the fire had damaged electrical equipment or power had been turned off at the request of firefighters. As of this newspaper’s deadline, Moreno said PG&E was researching to verify the outage cause and time for the circuit that served the bridge.
Catalano returned to the canyon days later to find his home had burned in the blaze and the bridge a mangled mess. Since December, the HRCBA has been seeking support for rebuilding, accepting donations totaling about $300,000 so far. The association this year also has been a part of rebuild discussions that have included local, state and federal officials.
In January, those officials explored a county-facilitated reconstruction of the bridge, with the possibility of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) footing most of the bill, Catalano said. That plan fell apart around April, when the HRCBA was told the county would have to pay the upfront costs for the rebuild, rely on reibursement from FEMA and adhere to federal standards, according to Catalano, who was present during such discussions. Financially, he said, such an arrangement didn’t work for the county.
That’s when the HRCBA began pursuing the county right-of-way across the creek to take up the rebuild effort itself, which would mean gaining ownership of the bridge, Catalano said. Since then, the association has been working with Rancho Cordova-based firm Quincy Engineering, which has presented a cost analysis showing a bridge rebuild would total about $3 million.
That cost, Catalano said, could be offset by donations of money, material and labor. And fundraising efforts, he said, could be sped up once the HRCBA has secured the right-of-way for the bridge project.
The bridge, Catalano said, would be reconstructed to resemble the original as closely as possible, with variations to accomodate modern building standards.
“It’s an iconic bridge, and it’s part of the county’s identity,” Catalano said. “It’s a symbol for the people that have burned out. We can rebuild this bridge if we all work together.”