The grim search

Photo by Ken Smith

Butte County Sheriff-Coroner Kory Honea has the unenviable task of relating the number of deaths due to the Camp Fire each night.

Each night at 6 p.m., as Cal Fire, law enforcement and other officials line up to deliver news of the latest Camp Fire developments and attempt to quantify the disaster, the darkest duty rests squarely on the shoulders of Butte County Sheriff-Coroner Kory Honea. Rather than acres burned, structures destroyed, units deployed or dollars spent, Honea’s job is to report the number of lives lost.

That began at the first of those press conferences last Friday (Nov. 9), when Honea confirmed the first five casualties. On Monday (Nov. 12), the number he delivered—42—qualified the Camp Fire as the deadliest wildfire in California history. Two days later, it rose to 56.

With well over 100 people reported missing, law enforcement working through more than 1,500 requests for wellness checks on residents in the affected areas, and the extent of damage and persistent hazards making it difficult for recovery crews to carry out their grim assignment, Honea has repeatedly refused to estimate how many may have perished.

“I’m not going to speculate on what the future holds,” he said during Monday’s briefing. “My sincere hope is that I don’t have to come here each night and report a higher and higher number, but I’m going to do everything in my power to get through this as quickly as possible.”

To that end, Honea focused his address that night on the resources dedicated to searching for fatalities, as well as the additional help expected to arrive throughout the week. As of Monday night, that included coroner search recovery teams from 13 law enforcement agencies throughout the state and three forensic anthropology search teams—including one from Chico State’s Human Identification Laboratory.

Included in the ramped-up efforts are 150 specially trained search and rescue personnel; search and rescue team management specialists; two temporary military morgues that will be set up within the evacuated areas; and additional radio and communications equipment for recovery teams. Also expected to arrive by week’s end are additional cadaver dogs and their accompanying veterinary support personnel.

“It’s still a very dangerous area for the dogs, so we need to ensure their safety while they work,” Honea said.

On Tuesday (Nov. 13), Honea reported that 100 members of the National Guard are joining the search. A private company called ANDE—which produces state-of-the-art Rapid DNA Identification systems—had a dozen personnel on the ground as of Wednesday morning, providing services pro bono.

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

Coroner teams from 13 law enforcement agencies have come to Butte County to aid in the recovery and identification of remains.

Additionally, Cal Fire has supplied 12 engines and more hands to assist the recovery teams. “We’ve talked about how there’s still hot spots, there’s still trees down, and how dangerous [the area] still is,” Honea said. “Cal Fire is coming to our aid to do the mop-up and debris-removal necessary to expedite the process.”

Honea said speeding up location and identification of remains is one of his primary goals, and that he believes the added resources—and particularly increased DNA-identification capabilities—will help bring peace of mind to survivors.

“I want to recover as many remains as we possibly can as soon as we possibly can, because I know the toll it takes on people not knowing what became of their loved ones.”

That’s where ANDE comes in.

“The conventional method of DNA identification would be to go to a lab and it could take weeks, months or even years [to identify remains], but we have the ability to do it within two hours,” Annette Mattern, chief communications officer for ANDE, told the CN&R.

As of Monday, four victims had been identified, and Honea provided the first three names of victims, with identification of the fourth pending notification of the victim’s family. The three confirmed killed were Ernest Foss, 65, of Paradise; Jesus Fernandez, 48, of Concow; and Carl Wiley, 77, of Magalia.

All of the remains recovered thus far have been found in the areas of Paradise, Concow and Magalia.

As for how the recovery teams are deployed, Honea said, “We follow leads. If we have some information that human remains were seen in the area or if someone suggests or tells us they saw human remains, obviously we’ll go to that location.”

He added that reports from people who know for certain a loved one didn’t evacuate also are prioritized.

“Beyond that, we’re trying to look at and add more resources to those neighborhoods or areas where there’s a higher probability of us finding human remains,” he said. Some indicators he mentioned include population density and the presence of vehicles.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Honea added a warning that highlighted the difficulty of the search: “There is certainly the unfortunate possibility that even after we’ve searched an area, once people get back in there, it’s possible that human remains could be found. … We’re going to do everything we possibly can to diligently search for those remains, but this is a very difficult task.”