Rescuers fear rains will wash away victims’ remains; 870 still missing in California fire

A search team Tuesday carefully scans an area for human remains after the Camp fire destroyed most of Paradise, Calif.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The cadaver dog alerted to a corner of the charred metal frame, what probably was once the kitchen of a mobile home in Paradise, Calif. Searchers in white jumpsuits walked over, with shovels and gloves, to sift through the debris.

After about 10 minutes, they determined there were no bodies or bones in the rubble — just burned sausages.

For days, hundreds of searchers have been methodically working through the destruction left by the massive Camp fire, looking for clues that someone couldn’t escape, such as a wheelchair or a footprint. They scour places where people may have tried to protect themselves from flames: under a mattress, inside a bathtub.


So far they have discovered 81 bodies — people who died in cars and homes; people outside, probably trying to outrun the flames. But with 870 people still missing and more than 12,600 destroyed homes to comb through, their grim mission is far from over.

“We have so many souls unaccounted for, I believe that this search for remains is going to go on for a long time,” said state Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber), whose district includes Paradise. “Could be weeks.”

And now, a pair of incoming storms are threatening to hamper recovery efforts. In a worst-case scenario, the downpour could flood the ruins and wash away human remains, leaving authorities unable to find and identify every victim of California’s deadliest wildfire on record. Authorities fear bones could sink underwater, making them harder to spot and drowning any scent that cadaver dogs rely on to find them.

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Deborah Laughlin last heard from her son and his pregnant wife just after the couple evacuated their Magalia home. It’s been almost two weeks, and she has no idea whether they survived.

“Please don’t tell me he died,” said Laughlin, tears in her eyes, from the cafeteria of Bidwell Junior High School in Chico. “Please.”


She said she is clinging to hope that they’ll be reunited soon. The 63-year-old lost her home in Paradise. She’s afraid of the approaching storms because she knows there are still people who are missing, people who may have died in the fire.

“I’m scared,” she said. “I’m scared they’ll be washed away and people’s remains will never be found.”

Meteorologists say the Camp fire burn scar — which is larger than the city of San Jose — could see up to 6 inches of rain through Saturday, with the heaviest downpour expected overnight Thursday. The forecast has triggered a flash flood watch for possible rock slides and debris flows. Light rain was beginning to fall Wednesday morning in the Sacramento Valley, with stronger showers expected later in the day.

“That rain is going to get in that ash, it’s going to turn into it a paste-like substance,” said Monterey County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Joe Moses, who is helping in the recovery effort. “It’s going to stick to everything and slow things down.”

Officials are preparing for a long, wrenching cleanup.

“It is a historic, almost biblical disaster,” Nielsen said Tuesday. “Old Testament stuff.”

It’s unclear how much of the burn zone has already been searched by crews, but it’s a slow and arduous process. On Tuesday, four members of Oakland Fire Department’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force lifted a charred box spring and began combing through a mixture of ash, dirt, shredded wood and pieces of roofing tiles.

“This is hard,” one of them said. “But we’re trying. Let everyone know we’re trying.”

If they find bones, they call an anthropological team to determine whether the remains belong to a human or an animal. If they conclude the remains are human, coroner’s investigators respond to conduct their own investigation.


“We’re doing a shoulder-to-shoulder search through the debris,” Moses said. “We have a very specific objective, and that objective is going to be met whether there is rain or no rain.”

Some bodies were burned so badly that they are difficult to identify.

“We’re finding remains in various states,” said Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea. “I suspect there are some that will have been completely consumed.”

And despite the thorough search effort, Honea warned residents that when they return to their properties, they could still find victims.

“I know that’s a very difficult thing to think about, but that’s the difficult situation we find ourselves in today,” he said.

Already, scenes from the blaze have given Anthony Salzarulo nightmares. He said the fire was worse than any other that hit the region, including one that took his home about a decade ago.

When he was evacuating Concow, he saw dead animals. A bobcat with burns walked near him.

Now, he worries a mudslide may take out his home, which was damaged in the blaze, and it’s made him anxious.


“I hope I have a home after this storm, because it sounds like it’s a pretty bad one,” the 60-year-old said. “I was dreaming that there was a tornado, and all these things were sticking to me. They were human bones.”

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For others who have yet to return to their homes, the rain is another stone in their troubled path. They would like to see what possessions, if any, remain before the mountainsides turn to slurry.

Brandy Connell, 40, worries that the rain will trigger a mudslide in her area of Magalia and that there will be nothing left to comb through at the ruins of her white mobile home.

The roof had collapsed on the home before fire ravaged its insides, and Connell hopes that collapse might have saved much of what her family of four was forced to leave behind. Perhaps the equipment used to run her business selling handmade soap, candles and shea butter survived.

Mostly, Connell has been thinking about her father’s ashes. He died from pancreatic cancer in May and had requested that his ashes be scattered in San Francisco, where he was raised. She wants to fulfill that final wish and find the small wooden box that held a good man.


“It was one of those things we didn’t think to grab,” she said.

Instead, she quickly packed mismatched clothes for herself and her two sons, Zack, 13, and Kyle, 7. She thought they would be gone only a few days. More than a week later, they are staying at a shelter at the Yuba-Sutter Fairgrounds in Yuba City.

Zack, an eighth-grader who likes chatting up strangers, is anxious to return to Magalia. He, too, has rain on his mind.

“If the whole thing slides,” he said, “I’m giving up all hope.”

Vives and Knoll reported from Paradise, Tchekmedyian from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Joseph Serna, Howard Blume and Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.



10:45 a.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from state Sen. Jim Nielsen.

8:25 a.m.: This article was updated with rain beginning to move in.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.