BUTTE COUNTY, Calif. — The task is painstaking and painful. A searcher is given the name of someone who is unaccounted for and an address.
A team heads over to the property, more than likely one where every evidence of life has been wiped out by flames. Many of the searchers are local and have lost their own homes. Now they look to see whether they can find the remains of their neighbors.
Five more sets of remains were found Saturday, Butte County Sheriff and Coroner Kory Honea said.
There are now at least 76 dead from the Camp Fire, which has obliterated more structures and lives than any previous fire in California.
Almost all of the town of Paradise is gone. President Donald Trump witnessed the devastation for himself Saturday, accompanied by Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom.
“We’re all going to work together and we’ll do a real job, but this is very sad to see,” Trump said.
A list of people unaccounted for has almost 1,300 names on it. Officials hope they find those people at shelters, or that missing people were simply without phone service and will eventually call in, or that they will figure out duplicate names when reconciling the list.
They are also trying to help thousands of people who did make it out alive but have nowhere to go, except for the parking lot of a Walmart and other places that are hosting thousands in their vehicles and tents.
“It is overwhelming, I don’t have any word to describe it,” Honea told CNN on Saturday. “This is unprecedented. No one has had to deal with this magnitude that caused so much destruction and regrettably so much death.”
The deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history, the Camp Fire has destroyed more than 9,800 homes and scorched 149,000 acres since starting November 8. It was 55% contained as of Saturday evening.
Meanwhile, three deaths have been reported in the Woolsey Fire in Southern California, bringing the statewide death toll from the wildfires to 79.
‘A lot of people don’t know … we’re looking for them’
Even as the list of those missing in the Camp Fire has ballooned, it’s hard to tell exactly how many people truly are lost, officials have said.
“That is raw data we’re collecting from phone calls, emails and the 911 system,” Honea said Saturday. “It’s not perfect data, but our thought process is that it’s better to get that information out to help start getting people accounted for. So rather than wait for perfection, we’re trying to get some progress going.”
Hundreds of deputies, National Guard troops, coroners and anthropologists are sifting through leveled homes and mangled cars for remains. While the focus is on the homes of people reported missing, some teams are going down streets from one property to the next.
“I want you to understand that there are a lot of people displaced, and we’re finding that a lot of people don’t know that we’re looking for them,” the sheriff said.
If people find their own or loved ones’ names on the list at the Butte County Sheriff’s Office’s website, they should call the sheriff’s office, Honea said.
In the midst of despair, hope remains. The mayor of Paradise told CNN Saturday that she is committed to rebuilding her town, as is the town council.
“Paradise is not gone,” Jody Jones said, citing a friend’s Facebook post. “It’s just closed for remodeling.”
Some heroes drive garbage trucks
Margaret Newsum gathered her medicine and other vital supplies and went outside her home in Magalia as the Camp Fire roared toward her home.
She had no phone service and no electricity, and she was just hoping someone would see her and come help.
Her rescue came in the form of a big green garbage truck and driver Dane Ray Cummings.
“He said, you’re going with me,” Newsum, 93, recalled.
Newsum recently broke her back and uses a walker to get around, which made it tricky to get up into the cab of his garbage truck. Cummings and some neighbors lifted her up and buckled her in, and they strapped her walker to the side of the truck.
Harrison, a single father, decided Newsum shouldn’t go to an evacuation center so instead he took her home with him.
And she’ll be there a while. Newsum’s home wasn’t destroyed, but it might be months before she can live there again.
Escape took them through ditches, front yards
With each day another story comes that makes it clearer how chaotic it was on the flame-filled and smoky day that the fire erupted.
Dan Newman, a team captain with the Butte County Sheriff’s search and rescue team, said he originally was tasked with going door to door to alert people in the community of Concow to the fire.
The mission quickly changed to go to Paradise, about a 20-mile drive away, where a hospital was in danger.
“When we arrived at the hospital there were already flames, and all of a sudden the urgency just skyrocketed,” he said.
His team went around to the ER entrance and threw four patients in its truck.
A hospital evacuation involved every kind of vehicle — ambulances, police cars, buses, personal cars.
The road that went by the hospital was swamped with cars and accidents. Drivers used every bit of open space they could, including ditches and racing through front yards, to get by.
The fire was faster than any vehicle was moving.
“We had homes on fire on each side,” he said, adding that there were times when he feared for their lives.
They got out, but another team couldn’t and ended up back at the hospital.
3 deaths in Southern California
The Woolsey Fire burning in Southern California has destroyed 836 structures in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, Cal Fire said.
More than 98,000 acres have been burned since the blaze began November 8, while evacuees remain in shelters, and portions of Malibu and nearby areas must be rebuilt, officials said. It was 82% contained on Saturday morning, Cal Fire reported.
“Resources will continue to mop up and patrol. Fire suppression repair teams are actively engaged working around the fire perimeter and affected areas,” the agency said.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Cal Fire reported some improvement in smoke levels regionally Saturday, but the air was still in the very unhealthy range.