“It’s like a total cremation of a town. It’s hard to see.”
PARADISE, California — There’s really no training that could prepare you for this, searching by hand through the ashy shreds of a person’s life, looking for tiny bits of their body, over and over and over again.
Snaking through the scorched ghost that was Paradise, crews of search and rescue vehicles slowly drove by mailboxes marking where homes used to be, shells of cars, and rolling blackened hills.
There are 994 people combing though this small California town, its neighbor, Magalia, and other areas in Butte County, trying to shrink the list of missing people that keeps swelling more than a week after the Camp wildfire swept through.
About 500 members of the search team are volunteers, belonging to a hodgepodge of crews from across the state who are here helping overwhelmed authorities. Many of the officials have also lost homes and loved ones in California’s deadliest wildfire in history. Nobody here has ever seen anything like this scale of loss. Even federal officials say it’s worse than a war zone in Iraq.
The authorities and volunteers have to comb through it all. On Thursday night, it was announced that seven more bodies were found, bringing the death toll to 63. The number of unaccounted for soared to more than 630, their “missing” pictures pinging across social media. Most are elderly.
Lyn Mangiameli, a doctor and search and rescue volunteer with the San Benito County Sheriff’s office, thinks the death toll could hit 200 and the entire process will take months, calling it more of a recovery than a search and rescue mission.
“They’ve found a fair number of bodies in the last two days,” he said. “The roads that were clogged when people were trying to escape. Those people who worked that area, they saw a lot of—”
He trailed off, then asked: “Did you get exposed to any burned bodies?”
“It’s a smell you will hold with you for the rest of your life,” he said. “It’s primitive.”
The 67-year-old, who has been through five wildfires, is here with about 12 other volunteers from his home county, including his wife. They’re camping in the parking lot of Butte College. In the morning, they get their assignment and head out together, to hopefully, and not hopefully, find someone.
“A huge part of the reason everyone is doing this is to bring closure to family members,” Mangiameli said. “We have a long tradition of burying our dead, of having a body we can put to rest. It allows us to mourn. We’re helping people do that.”
It’s unprecedented, really, to sift through almost an entire town rendered to ash looking for its residents. The fire swept through so rapidly that people had no time to escape.
Many of the dead were found in or near their homes, some in their cars in the middle of driveways or on the country roads trying to flee their tranquil, little pine-tree covered town at the base of the Sierra Foothills.
On a map, Paradise looks like a hand missing its thumb. There are only four, narrow ways out of its center. Last Thursday morning, those pathways were jammed full with frantic evacuees. Firefighters in bulldozers were rapidly trying to push abandoned, charred, and still-burning vehicles out of the way so the others could escape as the fire bore down.
One of them is Neal Road, where the skeleton of a car, its driver and passenger door still flung ajar, sits askew in silver puddles of molten metal. All the windows are gone.
Wearing full-body white synthetic Tyvek suits, the search and rescuers began to look. They crouched, combed their fingers through rubble in the car’s floorboards, got on their hands and knees to check for bone fragments. They peered in the trunk, in case its driver, or someone else, tried to take shelter there.
A crew of seven search-and-rescue volunteers from Tulare County’s job Thursday afternoon was to painstakingly scour the edge of Paradise, to make sure the people who do return “don’t find any deceased,” said Dustin Styles, part of the Tulare County Sheriff’s team who has been here for three days.
They started at 7 a.m. By 2 p.m., they had checked about 12 properties.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said, after surveying a car. “It’s like a total cremation of a town. It’s hard to see.”
When they’re done, they hang a pink ribbon on a fence, or gnarled tree branch, and spray-paint an orange or blue X, letting other teams know that they’ve been there. The next phase involves officials returning to double check, and then triple check, just to be sure. Then they will most likely tear down the remaining charred pieces of the home.
At the end of their day, the searchers return to their home base. They’re cut out of their dusty, crinkled Tyvek casings and are decontaminated. They shower, hang up their respiratory masks and grab coffee or a hot meal. On Thursday it was spaghetti, the iceburg lettuce drenched in dressing and the garlic bread a bit too buttery.
Then, they try and focus on other things.
“There’s some of us who have seen a lot,” Mangiameli said, leaning against his red Jeep. “I feel for these young guys who have never faced anything like this and they’re doing it while hunting for their neighbors or seeing their burned remains come through,” he said.
Search and rescue can be a gruesome job, he said. He’s found hikers who didn’t make it, the cut-up body parts of a person whose family no longer wanted them around, or others, still alive, but in “bad shape.”
The hardest part, though, is when you stop and are forced to process: “That’s when it can be terrible.”
But he does it, he said, because they “want to do some good in the world.” Finding people is purpose-driven, like placing an integral piece of a puzzle.
It’s like getting the remains of soldiers back years and years later from war, Mangiameli said. It’s engrained in us, the need to know, so we can move on.