Small team leads harrowing search for California fire victims

The 'camp fire' in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains north of the state capital Sacramento has claimed 29 lives, razed 6,400 buildings.

Yuba and Butte County Sheriff officers inspect a burned vehicle after discovering remains nearby in Concow, California, on 11 November 2018 after a camp fire ripped through the area. Picture: AFP

CONCOW, United States - A small team searching for victims of one of California's deadliest fires happen upon a man lying face down between two ash-covered pickup trucks. His body and clothes seem intact, aside from hideous burns around his calves.

"You never get used to it. You have to face reality," says one of a trio of sheriff deputies searching for the dead in the wreckage around the town of Paradise.

"Everybody has its own way to cope with it," he mused. "Mine? Better leave that unanswered."

The "camp fire" in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains north of the state capital Sacramento has claimed 29 lives, razed 6,400 buildings and effectively wiped Paradise off the map.

For the past days, this team - one deputy from Butte County and two from neighbouring Yuba County - has scoured the town and the many nearby communities nestled in this hilly area searching for human remains.

On Sunday the team drove several miles up a steep rocky road keeping an eye out for possible victims. They refused to give their names and had little to say as they focused on their macabre task.


Scores of people have gone missing since the wildfire broke out on Thursday and swept through the area.

Some survivors may be huddled in a hotel or at a shelter, unable to communicate with loved ones because the fire has destroyed area cell phone towers.

Others - like the man face down on the hills overlooking Lake Concow - were caught by the fast-moving flames as they tried to escape the inferno.

Was he overcome by smoke? Did he live at the nearby farm, of which nothing survived except for scorched marijuana plants inside the charred shell of a greenhouse?

"Far too early to tell," said one of the Yuba County deputies.


The deputies took pictures, noted GPS coordinates, and picked up documents inside the cars in hopes of eventually making an identification.

They lifted the corpse, placed it in a body bag, and loaded it into a hearse that had followed them from Paradise.

Without wasting time they resumed their search for fire victims.

Dozens of cars and trucks, some seemingly intact, litter the sides of roads in the area. The deputies check each one for victims.

Inside the shell of one torched vehicle that had slammed into a tree, they find a ball of burnt flesh the size of a small child.

A deputy carefully removes it and places the remains on a white tarp for careful examination.

"No skull. It's an animal!" he cries out after several minutes.

The deputy wipes his hands and a brief smile crosses his face. "We're moving on," he says.

The team continues on the meandering road and eventually reach an abandoned farm, where ducks, geese and goats roam freely.

The unexpected encounter with farm animals breaks the tension -- but as they drive off, with just one more hour of sunlight available, the hearse blows a tire.

"We're done," one of the deputies says.

"We'll get back to it tomorrow."