More than two weeks after the nation’s worst fire in a century erupted in Northern California, crews are still trying to find hundreds of people.
The Camp Fire has claimed at least 85 lives and, as of Sunday, is 100 percent contained. But now dozens of disaster workers from across the country are coming to the town of Paradise to help out with the search mission.
About two dozen search-and-rescue personnel in white jumpsuits and hardhats, wearing respirators walk through the ash-covered debris in Paradise. There are the remnants of some metal furniture. A fireplace is still standing. The whole search crew is just waiting to see if the cadaver dog finds any human remains.
Chuck Williams with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department is the cadaver dog handler. The dog, a black lab named Cinder, has been trained to sit if she detects any remains. But rain over the last three days here has turned mounds of ash into a muddy muck.
“What we’re hunting for is so minute,” says Williams, “Now if there is more remnants, the dogs can absolutely function, but the water has not helped the dogs.”
This process could take months. The burn scar of the Camp Fire is immense: 240 square miles across what was once rolling vineyards, apple orchards and rows of evergreen trees. Williams has spent his career responding to disasters and still, this scene takes him aback. “The magnitude,” he says. “It’s like being in a war zone. It’s like watching a war movie, unfortunately.”
When remains are found, they are sent to a mortuary in Sacramento, where forensics experts try to identify them. Then they’ll be returned to loved ones.
Before Williams and his team embarked on the mission, they were debriefed by anthropologist Colleen Milligan. She’s works with the Chico State Human Identification lab. She says many remains are found in places that suggest the victims were attempting to escape. “We’re talking about front doors and porches. Those are most likely individuals leaving or trying to leave,” she says.
As Williams searched street after street of Paradise, another thing quickly jumped out at him: the remnants of this fire were unlike anything he’s seen before, and he’s visited countless fire scenes. Williams says this fire was exceptionally hot: “Just by the level of ash. There’s was literally nothing left. It had almost been like through a cremation process.”
Meanwhile, for Paradise residents who evacuated, keeping tabs on the missing list is just one of several other dire concerns, like finding a home, sometimes finding a job and for many of then, joining a new community.
Bob Grimm lived in Paradise for 40 years. He and his wife left for a dentist appointment right before the fire broke out and he hasn’t been back since.
When Grimm first looked at the missing list, his saw the name of his friend, who he knew made it out. “So we got a hold of his son, and his son said, ‘ Yeah, dad’s OK,’ And I said, well, you call your dad and tell him get his name off that list, give him a big hug for me. And let him know, even in the bad days, today’s a good day because you’re alive.”
Many others have been removed from the unaccounted list in the same way. Grimm says he’s confident his friend wont’ be the last. “All I have is hope,” he says, “That’s all I have is hope.”
Butte County officials have been equally as optimistic. But they also acknowledge, because of the magnitude of this catastrophe, some people will be forever lost.