Death toll of Camp Fire climbs as search continues for more victims

The Pine Springs Mobile Home Park in Paradise is a microcosm of the task awaiting teams searching for dead among the embers of the Camp Fire.

Last Thursday morning, the community of more than sixty trailers nestled among tall pines on a two-lane road was full of residents, many of them elderly.

After the fire, there were three mobile homes left.

The rest had been swept away by a wall of flames that engulfed the trailers and left two residents unaccounted for. A search and rescue team working there Tuesday made a grim discovery: human remains.

By the end of Tuesday, investigators had located six bodies throughout Paradise, bringing the Camp fire death total to 48, the highest number of wildfire fatalities in California history.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said all six victims discovered Tuesday were found inside homes, but gave no further details or identities.

Earlier in the day, more than two dozen personnel swarmed over a lot at the burned-out wreckage of the trailer park, including members of Bay Area Mountain Rescue, clad in white haz-mat suits and gray booties; coroners’ officials from Fresno and Contra Costa counties; firefighters from San Francisco; and two police chaplains from Chico.

One investigator poked at what was left of a four-door sedan, looking for a vehicle identification number on the dashboard.

Others sifted through ashes and other debris with rakes and hoes, while their colleagues brought out long brown sacks and an oversized blue bag.

Forty minutes later, a hearse from KW Smith funeral home pulled up to the scene and bags of material were deposited in the back. It wasn’t immediately clear how many bodies had been found, and officials at the scene said they weren’t allowed to comment.

An investigator at the scene said the forensic teams were trying to be as thorough as possible — not just for identification purposes, but to make sure no bones or other remains were left behind when family members show up at Pine Springs in the days to come.

As the hearse prepared to depart, a K-9 van arrived to search for bodies in another part of the park, a couple of hundred of feet away. But the search turned up empty.

Janie Pierson, the park’s manager, said Tuesday she had been able to contact all of the residents except two, a pair of neighbors who lived next to each other and were last seen just before the fire struck.

John Arthur Digby, 78, a retired postal worker, lived in space three at the park, and has not been heard from since, according to his son, Roman, who lives in Minnesota.

“As each day passes, I’m losing hope,” Roman Digby said Tuesday morning. “I just want an answer either way.”

Digby said he has not been able to get answers from the Butte County Sheriff’s Office about whether they have found signs of his father at the park, but that he knows forensic teams have been to the site, and on Tuesday a search dog was brought to the remains of his trailer and a hearse was parked in front of it.

Affixed to a steel beam that once anchored the trailer was a piece of orange tape that read, “Searched 11/13/18.”

“If they found human remains there, that, to me, is my father,” Digby said.

Butte County sheriff’s officials had not identified any victims from the trailer park by Tuesday morning, but Pierson said she last saw Digby just before the flames bore down on the park.

No one knew a fire was approaching until Digby’s next-door neighbor, a woman named Wendy Haas who had a police scanner in her trailer, came out and told residents a blaze was approaching and residents had to evacuate immediately, Pierson said.

“I ran back to my office, locked it, ran back to my car and started beeping it like crazy,” Pierson said.

She drove around the trailer park honking and shouting, she said, and stopped to get two 90-year-old women and their cats out of their mobile homes and into their cars to get them ready to leave.

Pierson said that while she was trying to warn residents about the fire, she saw Haas go over to Digby’s trailer to tell him to leave, but that Digby just closed the door in her face.

Digby had not been feeling well, and both Pierson and his son speculate that may be why he didn’t try to leave.

Camp Fire in Butte County

Red circles on this live-updating map are actively burning areas, as detected by satellite. Orange circles have burned in the past 12 to 24 hours, and yellow circles have burned within the past 48 hours. Yellow areas represent the fire perimeter.
Source: National Interagency Fire Center

As 20-foot flames roared toward the park, Pierson said she jumped into her gray Chevy Equinox with two dogs and raced out onto Clark street with her two 90-year-old residents both following in their own cars.

They drove out and quickly got stuck behind a school bus for two hours until another motorist in a truck drove off the road and onto a bike trail through a wall of flames.

Pierson and the others followed through flames and toward Bille Road, she said.

“I thought, ‘This is it, we’re going to be crispy critters,’” she said. “Things were exploding all over the place. It sounded like a bomb field.”

Finally, they made it to Skyway, where a traffic jam kept them sitting for another two hours.

“If you looked in my rear view mirror, you could see headlights as far as you could see,” Pierson said.

At one point, she saw a woman with two children get out of her car and run from the flames.

“It’s quite hair-raising,” she said. “That fire was huge. It was coming right for us.”

Finally, Pierson and her fellow residents were able to get out of town and meet up in a Walmart parking lot in Chico. Since Thursday, she said, she has heard from all of her residents except for Digby and Haas.

Digby’s burned-out white Toyota Corolla was at the site of his trailer Tuesday; there was no car in front of the Haas trailer space as search teams combed the site.

The ferocity of the fire and the panicked exodus — with motorists abandoning their vehicles in traffic jams or running from their homes — is expected to make identifying victims extremely difficult, with teams using DNA and other techniques to do so.

Sheriff’s officials say they still are dealing with hundreds of missing persons reports, and by Monday night had identified only three of the 48 victims found so far, leaving many relatives anxious about the fate of their loved ones.

Wilma Smith, a Pleasanton resident, has been trying to get in contact with her brother Donald Patterson, 65, and Kathy Patterson, 71, since Thursday.

Donald Patterson, who goes by Lynny, owned an auto body shop in Paradise, while his wife worked from home, Smith said. “I saw online a picture of his body shop and the only thing left is the sign,” Smith said.

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