‘Overwhelming.’ See Camp Fire crews sift through debris looking for human remains
Two weeks ago, amid chaos in the early days of the Camp Fire, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea made a decision: He would publish daily the names of anyone reported to his department as missing.
That list, however, soon swelled to 1,200, causing consternation, confusion and complaints about inaccuracies. As of Friday evening, the number had dropped to 475 as more people reconnected with loved ones, were accounted for in shelters, or were tracked down by county investigators.
The remaining number is huge, though, and prompts serious concern: Is it possible the death toll for the devastating Camp Fire, already the deadliest in state history, could ultimately be much higher than the current tally of 85 victims?
Speaking to the Bee on Friday, Honea said he would not speculate on that, but is hopeful the number will be much lower than his list hints.
“My sincere hope is the majority of people on that list ... will be accounted for” as safe, he said.
In Sonoma County’s 2017 Tubbs Fire, more than 2,200 people were reported missing at one point, but the ultimate death toll was 22, according to Cal Fire. Sonoma officials told several news media outlets that they chose not to print names, fearing errors during a fluid situation.
Honea said his intent in publishing names, even ones that may be misspelled, was to get “raw” information out to the public to solicit help in winnowing down who really is and isn’t missing. He said his department had accounted for 2,146 missing people as of Friday.
“I can’t let perfection get in the way of progress,” he said at a briefing last week when asked about the likelihood of inaccuracies. “It is important for us to get the information out so we can get started identifying these individuals.”
The list is built from phone calls to the sheriff’s office, as well as 911 calls and emails, Honea said. That may include calls from friends, neighbors or distant relatives who have lost touch with a person, even if the person may be fine.
Beverly Jean Sparks and Wallace Sparks were initially on the list but were not missing, according to their grandson, Patrick Sparks. The couple had evacuated to a nearby family cabin, Sparks told The Bee last week.
“Knowing that they’re on the list and knowing that they’re not missing ... I’m hoping that a lot of people are in the same boat because that means there are a lot less people dead,” Sparks said.
The pair’s name has since been dropped from the list.
Angela Perez told The Bee her uncle David Marbury remains missing, but his name has been dropped from the list, apparently in error, a sheriff’s department representative told her.
“He’s in limbo,” she said, neither confirmed dead nor listed as missing, though family members call every day to add him back. “Each day we’d have to call back in and call back in and they have no history” of their previous requests, she said.
On Thursday evening, Honea said he was visiting evacuees at a community Thanksgiving dinner for victims when he ran into a man who had been on the list for several days.
“He said, ‘I had no idea you were looking for me,’ “ Honea said.
“It is difficult because we have an unprecedented event where a massive number of people were displaced from their homes and they were scattered all over northern California,” Honea said at a press briefing. “So it is easy for them to lose contact with each other because the traditional means in which they keep contact with each other — cell phones, land lines, texts, email — in many cases no longer exist or they no longer have as robust access to it.”
The search for remains of fire victims continued Friday in Paradise and other mountain towns, where more than 800 people from around the state were combing through burned out residences.
This week’s rains have made that task considerably more difficult, Honea said. Crews previously used screens to sift through ash and rubble to find human bones. The rains have turned that ash into a clay-like material, forcing searchers now to wash the clay with water to separate out the bone.
Honea said the missing and dead will dominate the department’s focus for months to come. He said his goal is to account for every person on the missing list, although he acknowledged in a press briefing last week that may not be possible. “That is the nature of a tragedy like this,” he said.
The search may become even more like a crime investigation over time.
Honea said his detectives likely will check phone records, credit cards and bank statements of missing persons “down the road” in hopes of closing out the toughest cases. The effort has been aided by Alameda County investigators who worked on the 2016 “Ghost Ship” case, where 36 people were killed in an Oakland warehouse fire during a party and concert.
Honea said he believes his approach has helped.
”In retrospect, I would make that decision again,” he said. “I think the progress we have made so far is worth the effort.”
This story has been updated on Nov. 25 to reflect a correction in the death toll of the Camp Fire. Authorities earlier erroneously reported the number of fatalities as 87. The correct number as of Nov. 25 is 85.