Science

Bones Among Ashes

What the Camp Fire’s aftermath is like for the searchers sifting through debris for human remains.

A note is visible where rescuers found a fire victim at a mobile home park that was destroyed by the Camp Fire on Nov. 14 in Paradise, California. The note, written on a brown paper bag, says "Team Bravo, Location 23, 39 44' 46.0" N, 121 35' 50.8" W, 1702 Elevat., Doe "D", 18-19496"
A note is visible where rescuers found a fire victim at a mobile home park that was destroyed by the Camp Fire on Nov. 14 in Paradise, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history is finally out. The three days of rain that began last Wednesday gave the more than 1,000 firefighters trying to extinguish the Camp Fire the assist they’d needed for more than two weeks. By Sunday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said the fire had been contained.

The Camp Fire scorched about 240 square miles of Northern California. There have been 85 confirmed deaths—so far. But that figure will probably keep growing. Right now, the list of people still unaccounted still hovers around 300. Crews composed of searchers from sheriff’s departments all over Northern California, Federal Emergency Management Agency task forces, and other state and local agencies are scouring the evacuation zone, looking for building hazards and the deceased. I recently interviewed one of the responders about that grim and important task.

“One family we found in one structure,” said Dr. Patrick Sweet, a family and emergency room doctor from San Diego deployed to the Camp Fire with FEMA’s California Task Force 8. We communicated over text message while he was inside the evacuation zone, traveling with a team from burned house to burned house to search for human remains using rakes and shovels. He described the process: “Our search teams look through the debris and look for bones. Then they call me in to look and see if they are human. We then have the dog brought in and see if they make the find without interference. We then notify [the] sheriff after we tape it off.” Then a coroner is called in to collect and eventually help to identify the remains of the person identified by the search crew and their dogs.

The Camp Fire was massive and unsparing. Whole forests have been erased, along with 14,000 homes. More than 50,000 people have been displaced. With flames so powerful, the heat from the fire consumed everything. Stone and steel structures have been reduced to ash—bricks to dust. And if a person did die in the flames, typically only whittled bones are left behind if any of their body remains. And even those are “nearly 80 to 90 percent cremated,” Sweet told me. Remains of larger bones, like the femur, the humerus, and the tibia are what the search teams usually find.

Teams have to go slowly, since there are jagged edges of corrugated metal from torn dwellings, many of which are trailer homes, and holes in the ground obfuscated by debris or ash. Septic tanks in particular are a known problem, and some rescue workers have even been reported to have fallen in.

Those who rode up with Sweet’s crew and other teams from across the area ate a paper-plate Thanksgiving meal on Thursday at a base camp in Chico, the largest city near the Camp Fire. In Chico, thousands who barely escaped have moved into tent encampments in parking lots, their cars, and shelters. Some know their homes are gone and have nowhere to go. Others are waiting until more evacuation orders are lifted to see what, if anything, of their homes still stands.

The teams that came from across California to help have been sleeping in tents, too, according to Sweet. Like the shelters that have been plagued with an outbreak of what appears to be norovirus and has infected more than 120 people in the area, the emergency personnel’s tent accommodations are susceptible to disease, too. “I’m like a broken record,” Sweet told me, describing how he stressed the need to sanitize to his crew before they ate.

This week, the firefighters are leaving. “All inter-agencies that were assigned to suppress the fire, we are pulling out today now that the fire is contained and turning it over to the Butte County Sheriff, the Search and Rescue team, and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services,” said a Cal Fire spokesperson on Monday.

It’s supposed to rain again later this week. The rain, as long as it doesn’t wash too much away, won’t necessarily make things harder for the crews, though it may slow them down. “One of the things that it does do is it does concentrate the scent into a smaller compartment because of all the ash that was flying around,” Craig Covey, battalion chief with the Orange County Fire Authority with California Regional Task Force 10, told local NBC affiliate KCRA. “It more compacts it, centralizes it, and the dogs can be very successful in that.”

The more bodies that are identified, the more clarity and perhaps closure the fire survivors who are trying to piece their lives back together will have. And a little clarity is probably welcome now, no matter how grim. Many who survived the Camp Fire aren’t sure where they’ll sleep in the coming months.