Paradise Lost: Grim Search Under Way in Incinerated California Town

Experts in identifying human tissue joined California police and firefighters on Monday in sifting through the charred debris of homes destroyed in the most devastating wildfire in state history, searching for remains of hundreds of missing people.

University anthropologists, trained in spotting bone fragments and other blackened body parts, systematically mined the ash and detritus of buildings wiped out when a wildfire swept through the town of Paradise, 100 miles north of Sacramento, on Thursday.

For friends and relatives of the 228 people unaccounted for in and around the town of 26,000 residents, the wait has been excruciating, knowing that the remains of some of the dead may never be recovered.

“In some cases, the fire burned so intensely that it burned everything to the ground, and in some cases it melted the metal,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told reporters Sunday. “In those cases, it is possible the temperatures were high enough to completely consume the body.”

The so-called Camp Fire, which has forced 53,000 evacuations, was still only 25 percent contained Monday, having scorched 113,000 acres and destroyed more than 6,700 structures, the most in California’s recorded history, Cal Fire said.

Nearly 1,400 survivors were sheltered in official evacuation centers, Cal Fire spokeswoman Erica Bain said, and nearly all of them had communicated with loved ones about their whereabouts.

People still looking for the missing have been directed to call centers for updates.

Teams dressed in white or yellow coveralls picked through debris by hand or with small garden shovels, hoping to find remains that could be transferred to Butte County facilities to be examined by pathologists.

In addition, the California Department of Justice deployed a mobile unit to help collect DNA from relatives of Camp Fire victims in order to positively identify the dead, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Nine law enforcement agencies had 42 people assigned to the search, in addition to 45 anthropologists from several institutions such as nearby California State University Chico and firefighters from 14 Cal Fire engine companies, said Megan McMann, community relations coordinator for the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.

“The area is not safe for dogs at this point but we are working with Cal Fire to make the area safe so we can begin introducing cadaver dogs,” McMann said.

In the meantime, anthropologists were applying skills also used to recover ancient remains.

Eric Bartelink, co-director of the Chico university’s Human Identification Lab, said his team frequently conducts searches of fire scenes and for buried bodies, but rarely so close to home.

“We have friends and relatives that were affected by the fire,” Bartelink told the Mercury News. “We know that there was a massive loss of life with these fires as we’re hearing from the sheriff’s office and so we’re here to help and provide closure for families.”