‘The height of character’: Volunteers set aside sorrow and exhaustion to search for Camp Fire victims

They are retired SMUD engineers and school principals. One is a full-time mom, another a professional farrier.

They are the volunteer members of El Dorado County’s search and rescue team, usually dispatched to find lost hikers and hunters in the hills and forests that stretch between Placerville and Lake Tahoe. Last week, in the aftermath of the Camp Fire, they were in Butte County on a singular mission.

“We were brought in to bring closure to families,” said David McCracken, who has been doing this for 26 years.

The El Dorado County team was part of what may be the largest search effort in California history. More than 500 people — nearly all of them volunteers with little or no professional forensics experience — are picking through the ashes of thousands of homes in Paradise and surrounding towns, looking for clues to provide answers to families whose loved ones are missing, aware their findings will likely be painful.

“We’re heading out there knowing the results will be tragic,” said the team’s supervisor, Sgt. Moke Auwae with the El Dorado Sheriff’s Department. “We’re doing what we always do, which is looking for victims. We’re very good at that.”

As of Monday, the remains of 79 victims of the Camp Fire have been recovered. Nearly 1,000 people are on a list of missing, though many of those may ultimately be found alive.

The El Dorado volunteers pay for all their equipment — some spending $8,000 a year on helmets, masks, GPS devices and radios — and won’t receive a penny of compensation for this hazardous assignment. They slept in a high school gym. Though they now have returned home, many spent days in Paradise away from families, with limited communication. The team operates as a nonprofit, relying on an annual crab feed to help pay for gear and travel — the next fundraiser is Jan. 26 at the fairgrounds in Placerville.

“This is the height of character,” Auwae said.

There is strategy to the search. Crews are focusing on homes where relatives have reported missing loved ones. The process could take weeks or longer. Entire neighborhoods of Magalia and Paradise have yet to be inspected, and rain is expected in coming days, bringing new urgency to the job.

The team was dispatched Thursday morning to a home in Magalia belonging to a woman whose family had provided DNA to authorities, fearing she had perished in the Camp Fire. Dressed in white protective suits and wearing filtration masks, they carefully sifted through the home’s remnants, crouching down in the wreckage for a closer look at bits of recognizable items that survived the flames and trying to avoid stepping on nails.

Within minutes, a crew member discovered what appeared to be a human skull and a single vertebra near an incinerated box spring at the front of the home.

Then, another discovery.

“We’ve got two beds and possibly three bodies,” a team member said. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the other remains were human.

Recovering remains from the Camp Fire’s destructive path is unprecedented work for many of the volunteers.

McCracken is one of the few members of his team who has been involved in other large-scale search and rescue missions. He said he was part of a FEMA team that was deployed to Hurricanes Katrina and Ivan.

“This will be equal to a disaster like Katrina,” he said. “Everything is gone. Little is left standing.”

Grant Nelson, 62, retired as an engineer from SMUD. He grew up exploring the wilderness of the Sierra Nevada and lives in Placerville. His life in the outdoors provided “a strong skill set” for this duty, he said.

But tragedies like the Camp Fire carry an emotional weight. Where a search for a lost hiker has the potential for a joyous outcome, sifting through the ash of Paradise can bring little more than knowledge.

Nelson said he received counseling after finding a dead hunter in Grizzly Flat in 2012, but was able to quickly rebound. He expects to seek counseling again after the Camp Fire, but also expects to have the same reaction this time.

“I survived,” he said of his past encounter with death.

Dave Freeman, 74, retired as the superintendent of the Placerville Union School District. He was a principal at schools in Granite Bay and has volunteered with the search and rescue team for 10 years.

Freeman’s parents once lived in Paradise and he has warm memories of visiting the area.

“When I looked at the pictures (of the Camp Fire), it was just so shocking,” he said.

Freeman bit into an apple during a brief break Thursday. His colleagues sat on the ground nearby, eating sandwiches and waiting for their next assignment. It was likely to bring the same grim results as the home in Magalia. Freeman was determined, but the enormity of the task was wearing on him.

“You can’t do anything,” Freeman said. “It leaves you empty inside.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee