Ghosts in the ashes

One of the images of the Camp Fire I’ll never shake is of Pearson Road six days after the blaze began. I’d traveled that road many times over the years, almost always in happy circumstances, but how it looked on Nov. 14 has forever tainted those memories.

That day, hundreds of search and rescue workers were scattered along its far length—the portion where it twists and turns and dips before straightening out and hitting Pentz Road. Most of the folks were clad in white hazmat-type suits, and the sheer volume of them was eerie.

I was with the CN&R’s Meredith J. Cooper and former staffer Ken Smith. We’d been there for hours for numerous tasks, including checking on the homes of our colleagues.

Daylight was scarce the week after the fire due to the toxic inversion layer hovering above, but the sun was going down by the time we made it to Pearson late in the afternoon. It was hazy and the ghost-like searchers were coming out of the wooded areas, preparing for the drive down to the valley after a day sifting through the ashes.

It’s a scene that haunts me.

We three journalists were dumbstruck—and because nightfall loomed, we didn’t stop to interview anyone. During the last few seconds as we slowly drove through, I scrambled to take a few photographs, including a few Hail Marys backward out of the window.

One of them appears in this week’s cover story, reporter Andre Byik’s first for the CN&R. It’s an excellent piece addressing the roadblocks law enforcement and scientists have run into in their attempts to officially identify via DNA the last remaining Camp Fire victims—presumably six people, based on the remains found to date—and how that’s affected a Chico couple’s ability to properly grieve.

The majority of the six are tentatively identified—based on circumstantial evidence—though the authorities haven’t released their names­. But two are mysteries, and Sheriff Kory Honea is being tight-lipped about them. He’s hoping to get answers by running their DNA through genealogy services and refused to tell us where the remains were found. That info, as Byik notes in the story, could develop leads.

I personally believe whatever reservation the sheriff has about releasing the info is outweighed by the public’s interest. Besides, he’s had nearly nine months. In fact, given the changes to Butte County since Nov. 8—including the exodus of many residents—withholding the info probably has lessened the odds of determining their identities.

Last week, after steering clear of Pearson Road for months, I drove the length of it from the Skyway. I was on my way to meet a displaced Paradise resident whose RV had recently been stolen. It was recovered in a sketchy Sacramento suburb the day after her story appeared in the CN&R (see “Insult to injury,” Newslines, July 18).

During our interview, she recalled her eight-hour escape the morning of the fire, including being separated from her family and spending five terrifying hours stuck in gridlock on 3.4-mile Pearson. It’s the stuff of nightmares and more trauma than I can comprehend.

That once-shaded winding ravine—the stretch my husband drove through seven years ago while I was in labor with my son and headed to Feather River Hospital—is now sun-drenched. Just splinters of its former canopy of pines exists. Just splinters.

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About Melissa Daugherty 58 Articles
Melissa Daugherty is an award-winning columnist and editorial writer who started her career as a higher education reporter at a daily newspaper. Daugherty spent 13 years at the CN&R, seven as editor-in-chief. Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable is her super power.