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'Total destruction': Volunteers sift through ashes of Northern California wildfire

NBC News logo NBC News 11/18/2018 James Rainey and Elizabeth Chuck

Photo Gallery by Photo Services

PARADISE, Calif. — They are tacked to bulletin boards and trees. They fly across the web—from Twitter, to Instagram to Facebook. They fill long sheets from a legal tablet, 22 pages in all, taped to a church bulletin board.

They are the names of the missing and they go on and on.The fire that roared through the Sierra Nevada foothills just before the first chill of fall has killed at least 76 people, a grim record in the history of wildfires in America. But even harder to fathom might be the number listed as missing—1,276 as of Saturday night, though no one can be sure if that is close to the real number.Some names might have been double-listed, with information crisscrossing so many channels.

Others may have been located, but the information not yet passed on to authorities. A final accounting appears months away.It's been eight days since the Camp Fire flew down a ridge line through this tranquil town and still, no one has heard from Jackie Parker, 101, the oldest of those listed missing, or from 21-year-old John Tyler Scarbrough, the youngest.

No one has heard from a beloved octogenarian, known as Aunt Evie, or from a home health care worker, Sheila Santos, or—for a long time this week—from a half-dozen relatives of Vietnam veteran Randy Somerby.

On Friday morning, Somerby, 65, scanned the long roster of the missing on the whiteboard at the Neighborhood Church in Chico, his home of the last week.

"They're all gone," he said of the stepfather, mother and brother who he had been unable to reach. "I'm the only one left."With the 146-000-acre fire zone closed to everyone but firefighters and recovery workers, Somerby and all the others were left mostly to wait. Working up the mountain to provide some answers are more than 600 firefighters, sheriff's deputies, National Guard members, forensic anthropologists and search and rescue volunteers from dozens of California counties.

No victim in the Butte County fire zone has been found alive for more than a week. And much of what is left to be found is likely to be bone, teeth and prosthetic devices, a few of the searchers said. Yet the teams, including civilians more accustomed to hunting down missing hikers, dutifully trudged from one gutted property to another this week, continuing the bleak accounting.

With 9,700 homes and 144 apartment and condo complexes destroyed, the work has only begun. Officials here won't say how many structures they have been able to inspect or how long the work will take. But it's likely less than 20% of leveled homes have gotten even a first inspection for remains, said a Butte County official, who asked not to be named because he had not been authorized to speak on the topic.

Enrique Bergzinner served with the Marines in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. He huddled with the rest of a search and rescue team from nearby El Dorado County, at the Tall Pines Entertainment Center, the Paradise bowling alley that is now the command center for the search.

"This is total destruction. Total," said Bergzinner, who can't recall anything like it, even during his time in Fallouja and Anbar Province. "You are walking on what used to be someone's roof and now it's just five inches of ash. There's nothing left.

"Yet Bergzinner and hundreds of others volunteered to join in the work. Among his comrades: a horsewoman in her 70s, a retired school superintendent, a tax accountant and a massage therapist. Each morning since the fire passed, they, or volunteers like them, have donned white hazmat jumpsuits and grabbed rakes and shovels.

In the unrecognizable heaps that were once houses and mobile homes, they combed gently through ashes, from 8 a.m. until sundown. County officials divided Paradise and surrounding mountain towns, like Magalia, into evacuation zones for such an emergency. And the search crews had divided those blocks—more than two dozen of them—into yet smaller quadrants to organize their work.

"The amount and the extent of the work left to be done is incredible. It's just incredible," said Tim Tuggle, a Fresno County Fire Department battalion chief leading one a of about a dozen strike teams of search and rescue workers. "The goal is to let people get back to their properties. And to do that we have to make sure no one finds missing people, or their loved ones.

a group of people standing around a fire hydrant: Rescue teams search for human remains in the rubble of the Camp Fire in Paradise, California on Friday.

Rescue teams search for human remains in the rubble of the Camp Fire in Paradise, California on Friday.
© Brock Stoneham
"As the teams pushed from one charred enclave to the next, Tuggle's team placed an X on a map of areas completed. H's marked spots where heavy equipment will be needed—to pull aside the corrugated metal roofs, now melted like sliced cheese over vanished motorhomes. A real search can't be finished until the roofs have been moved aside.

Team Echo-9 from El Dorado County included the school superintendent and the massage therapist, the tax man and half a dozen others, supervised by a sheriff's sergeant.Over two days and dozens of homes, the group did not encounter anything that looked remotely like human remains.

"It's not so much what I have seen but what I haven't seen," said Dave Freeman, 74, the retired school superintendent. "There's not much that's recognizable."

About 20 dogs trained to sniff out human remains, even when they have been cremated, joined some of the search teams. By day's end, the cadaver dogs return to base camp, exhausted from their workBetween searches, the volunteers encountered rabbits, squirrels and deer wandering the ashy moonscape, some with singed fur. The deer, still in shock, did not run off but paused to watch the search teams quizzically, before wandering off in search of food they won't find any time soon.

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