'Like Being In A War Zone': California Fire Search And Rescue Could Take Months

Nov 25, 2018
Originally published on November 26, 2018 9:09 am

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.

The magnitude. It's like being in a war zone. - Chuck Williams, Orange County Sheriff's Department

"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.

Even in the bad days, today's a good day because you're alive. - Bob Grimm, Camp Fire survivor

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.

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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

More than two weeks after the nation's deadliest fire in a century erupted in Northern California, crews are still trying to find hundreds of people. The Camp Fire has killed at least 85. It's now fully contained. But dozens of disaster workers from across the country are coming to the town of Paradise to help with the search mission. NPR's Bobby Allyn is there and followed a team of searchers as they scoured the incinerated city.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: There's about two dozen search-and-rescue personnel in white jumpsuits and hardhats wearing respirators. You can see the remnants of some metal furniture, looks like a fireplace that is still standing. And the whole search crew is just waiting to see if the cadaver dog finds any human remains.

Chuck Williams is the cadaver dog handler. He came up from the Orange County Sheriff's Department. 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.

CHUCK WILLIAMS: What we're hunting for is so minute. Now, if there's more remnants, the dogs can absolutely function. But the water has not helped the dogs.

ALLYN: 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.

WILLIAMS: The magnitude - it's like being in a war zone. And it's like watching a war movie, unfortunately.

ALLYN: 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. 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.

WILLIAMS: Just by the level of ash - there was literally nothing left. It had just almost been, like, through a cremation process.

ALLYN: Meanwhile, for Paradise residents who evacuated, keeping tabs on the missing list is being juggled with several other dire concerns, like finding a home, sometimes finding a job and, for many of them, 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, he saw the name of his friend, who he knew made it out.

BOB GRIMM: 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 then also let him know that even in the bad days, today's a good day because you're alive.

ALLYN: Many others have been removed from the unaccounted list in the same way. Grimm says he's confident his friend won't be the last.

GRIMM: All I have is hope. That's all I have is hope.

ALLYN: 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. Bobby Allyn, NPR News, Paradise, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.