After the Camp Fire, forensic teams seek the lost

For response teams in Paradise, physical and emotional risks remain.


Editor's note: On Dec. 3, the Butte County Sheriff's Office released updated numbers of the Camp Fire's missing as 11 and dead as 85.

Last Friday, a week after the Camp Fire began, the ruins of Paradise, California, still smoldered in the faint morning light. Along a winding street in the town’s center, the sun was a well-defined orange circle reflected in the swimming pool of an incinerated home. At another address, a statue of a swan spread its wings above a melted porch lamp and two charred concrete angels.

Nearby, in the parking lot of the Tall Pines Entertainment Center, a miraculously intact bowling alley, hundreds gathered to prepare for another day of searching. That morning, some 1,300 people were still reported missing, a figure that would drop to 699 by Monday. The lot thrummed with the sound of crews readying their gear, studying fire maps and debating strategies for a search effort that has exacted a heavy mental and physical toll on everyone involved, including those experienced in searching for the dead on battlefields and in natural disaster zones.

Members of the California Army National Guard search a property for human remains at a home burned in the Camp Fire.
John Locher/AP Images

The search battalion, assembled from across the state through a mutual aid system typically reserved for terrorist attacks and other mass casualty incidents, included at least 600 people and 24 rescue dogs specially trained to find the remains of humans lost to fires. The size of the force, composed of military personnel, trained public safety officers and even local residents who had lost their homes, testified to the cataclysmic power of the blaze.

“The magnitude of this is incomparable to anything we’ve been involved with in the past,” Ashley Kendell, a spokesperson for the Human Identification Lab at California State University, Chico, said after a press conference. “We’ve never seen anything on this scale.” As of Monday, 79 deaths had been reported.

With over 15,000 structures in the surrounding area destroyed by the end of the weekend, the day ahead would be grim and treacherous for the searchers, who gathered around a makeshift stage on the steps of the bowling alley to listen to instructions from their supervisors. The briefing included a litany of warnings, both explicit and implied, about the specific risks that search and rescue crews face in fire zones.

Joe Moses, a commander with the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office, admonished the search teams not to become victims of the self-neglect and hyperfocus that often overtake people combing through rubble. Among the potential physical threats that might bedevil volunteers were basement fires, which could turn ash-covered floorboards into brittle sheets of charcoal that crumble underfoot, and airborne asbestos fibers unleashed by the fire’s megaton heat. “This is dirty, tedious work, and it takes a huge toll on you, physically and emotionally,” Moses said.

In his morning prayer, Col. Karl Funk, a volunteer chaplain with the California State Military Reserve, asked God to bring the assembly not just success in bringing home the missing, but also personal strength and safety.

Ben Ho, an official with the California Office of Emergency Services whose experience includes time at the 9/11 terrorist attacks, warned one canine rescue team that they would be exposed to dangerous particles – burned rodenticide, pool-cleaning chemicals, dioxins and heavy metals. At the same time, he reminded them of the importance of their work, especially for the traumatized local residents.

“We are now on sacred ground,” said Ho, a Persian Gulf War veteran who had a prior career as an Army eye surgeon. “This is not a hobby. We are here as guests to bring the community back.”

Ho, who also worked to recover remains at the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, said the Camp Fire was unusual in that it called for an accounting of the dead across an entire city of roughly 26,000 and the steep, wooded canyons nearby, rather than a single neighborhood or building.

“We’re trying to do a formal census in an area that has been decimated,” Ho said.

Among the searchers, who donned white Tyvek suits to ward off toxins, were some 42 forensics experts from university anthropology departments across the West. They were tasked with identifying cremated remains whose human signatures are unrecognizable to the untrained eye. Some said that nothing in their careers had prepared them for the scale of the Camp Fire, whose ravages illuminated the precarious nature of a society that continues to build in the urban-wildland interface in a time of intensifying droughts and megafires.

Some observers were taken aback by how this fire overwhelmed the evacuation plans instituted after the Humboldt Fire in 2008. As the Camp Fire raged, many people were trapped — stalled on traffic-choked streets, unable to drive on stretches of asphalt that heated to tire-bursting temperatures.

“It moved so quickly and consumed so much,” said Don Hankins, a geography and planning professor at CSU Chico who works internationally to build fire-safe communities. “There was really nothing you could do to stop it.”

The search effort continued unabated over the weekend as President Donald Trump visited Paradise for a brief press conference. As they worked to peel back the charred layers of burned-out homes where the lost were concealed, many searchers were too focused on their grim task to notice the roar of Trump’s motorcade just blocks away along Skyway, the city’s main thoroughfare.

Ho, moving quickly among the teams on Friday, explained that distractions tend to dissolve when one is sifting through the homes of the missing. Scores of addresses still needed to be checked, he said, a task “logarithmically” larger than any other search effort on his résumé. The sense of urgency was intensified by the weather forecast, with autumn storms threatening to wash away and bury the human relics still concealed in the ashes. Meanwhile, the holiday season was rapidly approaching.

“When we leave, people have to come home,” Ho said as search coordinators dashed to and from a mobile forensics lab nearby. “What is their Christmas going to look like?”

Scott Bransford is a writer from California’s Central Valley, where his family has worked in agriculture for generations. He has covered life in the West for outlets including The New York Times, The Guardian and Los Angeles Review of Books.

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