EXCLUSIVE: Tour heartbreaking wildfire damage at Camp Okizu in Butte County

BERRY CREEK, Calif. (KGO) -- One of the co-founders of a beloved camp for children with cancer got his first look at the devastation of the camp caused by the massive North Complex wildfires in September.

John Bell invited ABC7's Cheryl Jennings and photographer Cathy Cavey to take an exclusive private tour of the site as soon as it was safe to do so.

Bell walked around his beloved camp, pushing away any debris, as he fondly remembered the way things were before the disastrous fire. He said he had seen pictures prior to the visit and was surprised to see that some trees were still standing.

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But most of Camp Okizu is destroyed after two fires merged and roared through much of the 500-acre property.

Drone footage showed just how bad things are. It was shot by Bell's son. John Bell Jr. drove his father to camp for their first look at the damage. Bell Jr. was a camp counselor as a teen and stayed for years to train the counseling staff. His pictures show sad images of the remains of the forest.

It once brought beauty and created shade for children living with cancer, their siblings and families.

RELATED: Beloved summer camp, Okizu, for children affected by cancer, burns in North Complex fires

Okizu used to look stunningly beautiful. The campsite was nestled among giant trees for the past 20 years in the Butte County town of Berry Creek.

It had been a safe haven for children and families affected by cancer, helping 3,500 people a year for 39 years, from hospitals throughout Northern California.

ABC7's Cheryl Jennings and photographer Cathy Cavey stand next to the water at what's left of Camp Okizu.

ABC7's Cheryl Jennings and photographer Cathy Cavey stand next to the water at what's left of Camp Okizu.

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ABC7 News has visited the camp for many years and saw firsthand how the camp helps children who are discriminated against in school because cancer makes them look different.

Bell said, "It's a place where everybody is like you. And you get support. They say that happened to you, and they're finally able to say it."

He added that a lot of kids never, ever say they are bullied. They just feel shame. they can't talk about all of that at camp and feel comfortable about it.

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A young camper named Isaac talked to us at a previous summer camp and said he was bullied a lot after he lost an eye to cancer. He said that all the kids get bullied. "Everybody did at least once. And if they didn't, they're lucky."

A young camper named Sophia said she loves Okizu. "I think it's like fun and everybody is kind of like a big family, cause everybody knows what each other has been through."

Even children who were very ill could come to camp because there was an infirmary. It was built with money donated by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. The infirmary was staffed by doctors and nurses who volunteered every summer.

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Dr. Mike Amylon is the medical director. He's a pediatric bone marrow transplant specialist. Dr. Amylon and Bell co-founded Camp Okizu together. They bought the property and funded the construction with sizeable loans.

And now the infirmary, the children's cabins and just about everything else has been turned into ashes and melted steel.

As for the loans? Bell said he and Dr. Amylon paid off everything. "We did pay it all off. Dr. Art Ablin left us a bequest of $1 million to pay off the loan. And as I don't know if it's fate would have it, in June of this year, we paid off the camp. And here we are."

The fire took everything in September.



Bell said the camp was so good, the staff could do so many things to help children and families -- especially with the infirmary. He said, "There are probably two dozen kids who could not have been here because we wouldn't have been able to do what we could with them, what we needed to with them, without it."

As Bell continued his tour, he pointed to the two-story chimney, still standing tall in the middle of the rubble, with the Camp Okizu name front and center. He said, "The staff wrote those blocks there, the names of all the children they could remember who passed away who had been to camp."

The chimney was housed in the main lodge where kids had their meals and enjoyed movie night. Counselors would make announcements from the hearth and lead the kids in dancing to songs like "Uptown Girl."

Children and families healed while making lifelong friends at camp, laughing and playing in a variety of activities.

There was swimming and canoeing out on the lake, where they could visit the boathouse, with handicap accessible bathrooms. There was lots of storage for all the water equipment.

It took years to raise the money to build the boathouse at Camp Okizu. Prior to all that, the stuff was stored in a shipping container. And once the boathouse was built, it was a center of joy for everybody. The fire raced through it and also burned it to the ground.

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But campers will not forget the memories created at Camp Okizu. Generous donations meant that Camp Okizu was always free. That helped families dealing with sky-high medical bills.

So, what does the word Okizu mean? Bell said, "It's a Sioux Indian word and the exact definition is kind of questionable, whether it's coming together or to heal from a hurt and make everybody whole."

Camp Okizu has been taking care of others for decades. Now, it needs time to heal itself. The programs were already in transition. Camp was canceled this summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so Camp Okizu treated the problem by holding virtual camps for kids and families that turned out to be a good thing.

Bell said, "Anybody in a hospital bed can be at camp. The kids all go in one room or your own group of people, like you would do here, do some camp-related activity. It's just been an amazing thing."

ABC7 photographer Cathy Cavey films an interview between Cheryl Jennings and Camp Okizu co-founder John Bell.

ABC7 photographer Cathy Cavey films an interview between Cheryl Jennings and Camp Okizu co-founder John Bell.

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Recovering from the fire presents a long term enormous challenge. Okizu does have insurance, but that won't cover everything for rebuilding and future programs.

Bell said, "We're going to bring bulldozers out and start taking the debris into piles and getting rid of it in debris boxes. We can start figuring out how many trees are left and what we can do with x number of trees. Do we have to spend next summer building and rent other sites and have camp? Do we put a lot of tents up like we did in year one? We're really going to need a lot of help."

RELATED: Evacuees describe racing for safety as Bear Fire explodes in size in Butte County

Cheryl Jenning's nephew, Riktor, survived brain cancer after he was diagnosed at the age of 3. He was able to visit Camp Okizu when he was 6. His younger brother, Nolan, also came to camp and his parents got emotional support at family camp. They sent this message of love and thanks, hashtag: Okizu Strong.

Bell said, "Going forward, I never doubt there will be an Okizu next year. We'll be someplace. As I've always said, If there's 10 kids in a field someplace, that's Camp Okizu."

Camp Okizu will remain virtual for now, but it will rise again.

You can help Camp Okizu keep its virtual programs going, or contribute to the rebuilding fund and get updates by going to their website and Facebook page.
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