“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.”
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.
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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 work
Between 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.
More than one of the searchers told of the strange duality in the work — wanting to be thorough and find what is to be found, but dreading what that might be.
At one home, crew member Adena Sherburn suddenly startled. A small hand reached up through the ash. A step closer and she relaxed. The hand belonged to a porcelain doll. Later, she and another team member found a bathtub — often a refuge for victims in a fire. Filled with ashes and debris, the pair dug through the detritus, Sherburn repeating to herself, “Please let it be clear, please let it be clear.” It was.
Sherburn, 50, a massage therapist, only completed her training to work with El Dorado’s search and rescue team three weeks ago. For two days this week she was in a place she could not have imagined. But she felt like she was where she needed to be.
“I’ve got feet, I’ve got eyes. So this is something I can do to help,” Sherburn said. “I would rather be here doing this than anywhere else right now.”
For most of those waiting, many of them in Chico and other communities in the valley below, the wait has seemed interminable.
Marque Henson and her husband had made the mad run down Paradise’s main drag, the Skyway, on the morning of Nov. 8. Flames burned high on either side. A tall tree fell, narrowly missing their car.
Wracked with fear, Henson also had a sick feeling because she didn’t have time to get miles across town to the home where her aunt, Evelyn Cline, lived alone. Aunt Evie had always been there for her, coming to support her even as Henson’s mother hopscotched across the country, leaving Henson feeling rootless.
A neighbor woman was paid to look after Aunt Evie, 83. But on the morning of the calamity, Henson realized a list with all her phone contacts had been left behind. She and a cousin who has been Evie’s primary overseer have no way to reach the caretaker.
Henson’s son took to social media. “Has anyone seen my aunt Evie Cline?” Paul Henson pleaded on Twitter, above a picture of Evie, a pale woman wearing a pale purple sweatshirt embroidered with flowers.
Her home on Roberts Lane in Paradise is now just a shell. Atop a wood-burning stove, there is a ceramic figure of a mother owl and two chicks. Cline loved owls, and such knick-knacks dotted her home.
“My aunt is my last living relative, besides my children,” said Marque Henson, her voice clutching with emotion. “It’s hard to think that she won’t be there to come home for Christmas or Easter, or Thanksgiving.”
Tammie Konicki knows a little more about the fate of her mother, but still not enough. Sheila Santos, 54, lived at Holly Hills Mobile Estates, where not a single home out of dozens remains.