Even the ashes of late loved ones were lost in Paradise. Enter archaeologists and canines

Amanda Gehrett stood at the top of the steps that once led to the front door of her Paradise home, her hands clasped, watching below as a handful of men and women in dirty white coveralls sifted through the ruins on a sunny Saturday morning.

The wreckage of her former home now contained piles of debris 4 feet high clumped against its remaining basement foundation. Her two-story home had no structure left – no walls, no roof, not even a brick chimney as some neighbors’ places did. Nothing that resembled the exterior of a house except the brick entryway on which she stood and the crumpled wreckage of a garage door.

The Camp Fire blazed through Butte County for most of November, killing at least 86 people. Many were elderly. Some died in their cars as they tried to escape the flames.

More than two months after California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire ignited, virtually razing the town of Paradise within days, life’s focus for survivors has turned to tasks most never imagined having to confront.

Among them: returning to the ruins of their former homes to look for the ashes of loved ones — not the remains of the 86 or more who perished directly from the wildfire, but those who had died before the blaze.

In closets, on nightstands, on bookcases and elsewhere, many Paradise residents had cremated remains – also known as cremains –stored in their homes, in urns or in other packaging that shattered or burned in the fire.

But using a process only recently discovered, experts can identify and recover these remains.

More than two dozen professional and student archaeologists volunteered last weekend to shovel, trowel and brush through the rubble and debris that once made up Paradise families’ treasured possessions, hoping to recover cremains intermingled with the fresher ash created by the Camp Fire.

The effort – the third of at least four planned expeditions to Paradise toward this cause – was organized by Northern California archaeological groups and the Institute for Canine Forensics.

It’s a concept that was still in its infancy as of Saturday, when archaeologists and canine handlers embarked from the parking lot of a Chico hardware store into a still-devastated Paradise.

‘A thousand pounds of debris’

Gehrett was one of more than 150 people so far who have requested assistance from the cremains recovery campaign. She, along with her husband, Mark, and her brother-in-law Robert, lived in a Paradise home surrounded by trees.

Gehrett recalled with a good amount of detail where the remains of her father-in-law had been stored. The digging volunteers looked for clues to help them find what was left of a brown urn that had been kept atop a dresser.

Thanks to a pair of well-trained canines, who can sniff out bone fragments and other scents of human remnants, the archaeologists had a rough starting point. But the original crew responding to the Gehretts’ morning appointment had to call for some extra muscle. Thousands of pounds of debris were piled along the home’s rear foundation, where the urn was likely to be.

“You’re trying to move a thousand pounds of debris in about an hour,” volunteer lead Alex DeGeorgey said during an 8 a.m. briefing in a Home Depot parking lot.

A staffer at Santa Rosa-based ALTA Archaeological Consulting and one of the volunteer effort’s four leaders, DeGeorgey gave a rough outline of the process and instructions to the day’s volunteers, many of whom had never undertaken anything like this before.

It’s a mix of hard labor and detective work – more shovel than trowel, DeGeorgey said, with volunteers routinely tossing cinderblocks and stray bricks aside.

Making use of property owners’ memories of the space and canine sense of smell, the archaeologists identify target areas, then shovel a moat-like border around those areas.

“It’s like making an island,” 30-year veteran archaeologist Anmarie Medin said as she pitched ashy rubble into a ditch behind her.

The crews then slow down and begin searching that island for cremains or clues to their whereabouts.

It’s not just shattered pieces of a ceramic urn that the archaeologists seek. Potentially scattered throughout the rubble during the chaos of the fire, the cremains can be spread across several feet of debris. They have a slight salmon color and distinct texture, DeGeorgey and others explained.

In ideal cases, the dig teams can also recover the identification medallion, which most crematoriums place among the ashes.

Amanda Gehrett paced between her SUV in the driveway and the front entry of her destroyed home, overlooking the sunken basement foundation several feet below.

“We’re gonna get down there,” CSU Chico graduate student Steven Brewer assured her before returning to the rubble and resuming his pickax work.

After hours of exhausting work and searching, and after those extra hands had departed, Brewer’s promise held true. Amanda, who watched quietly and with a bit of awe, left with the ashes of her father-in-law, William Gehrett.

Santa Rosa roots

Though the broader study of archaeology dates back a few hundred years, and forensic anthropology goes back several decades, organized efforts to recover cremains from the aftermath of wildfires started in the wake of California’s 2017 wildfire season.

DeGeorgey and volunteers led one of California’s first efforts to recover cremains after the October 2017 Tubbs Fire, which killed 22 people and destroyed more than 2,500 Santa Rosa homes.

According to Medin, it was DeGeorgey’s consulting firm, ALTA, that figured out dogs accustomed to more traditional forensic expeditions could successfully sniff out remains in a burnt-out home.

Now, it’s a process that leaders who organized the volunteer effort say should be a normal part of wildfire recovery effort, mandated by the Federal Emergency management Agency, California Office of Emergency Services and other agencies involved in wildfire recovery.

“If we don’t do this, these ashes go to the toxic waste dump,” said Michael Newland, the director of Environmental Science Associates’ Northern California Cultural Resources Group, and another principal team leader. “ … We’re trying to get on their radar to get that folded in, so that everybody does find about it. So that when FEMA or OES comes and asks how to clean up the house, they want to know if there’s human remains inside the house.”

Newland, DeGeorgey and the volunteer group’s two other principals – Lynne Engelbert and Adela Morris of the Institute for Canine Forensics – all share the common goal of convincing state or federal agencies that cremains recovery should be the norm after wildfire disasters.

The Plantation

Newland’s team Saturday included Medin, an archaeological supervisor with the state Department of Parks and Recreation’s Office of Historic Preservation; Chris Sapolu, an archaeology student at Sacramento State and tour guide at the Sacramento History Museum; John Grebenkemper, a handler with the institute for Canine Forensics; and Grebenkemper’s 10-year-old border collie, Kayle.

The team was assigned three homes Saturday, but offloaded one appointment to another team after spending more than an hour helping at the Gehrett property.

Newland’s first full assignment was the recovery of two sets of cremains – a grandmother and a grandfather - in a double-wide mobile home at a gated senior living community called The Plantation. Located on a corner lot on Plantation Road, a cluster of three modern houses stood untouched across the street.

Chrissie Weston, her husband, Steve, and their two daughters arrived at the former residence of her aunt and uncle before Newland’s crew returned from Gehrett’s property. Their 14-year-old, Ali, found a diamond ring within minutes of searching, but the family wasn’t confident whether it’s her great-grandma’s. Steve and Jayne, 18, looked through broken porcelain for pieces they could use to build a mosaic.

Chrissie’s aunt and uncle lived at The Plantation for just three months before the Camp Fire blazed through. They survived and now live in Modesto.

The Westons took the trip to Paradise to give Newland’s team the legal OK to enter the property and start searching for the cremains of Chrissie’s grandparents. The property was smaller but more treacherous than Gehrett’s, with metal support beams still lying horizontally along the home’s nonexistent floor. A Miata sports car sat roasted in the garage.

“This is amazing,” Chrissie Weston told Medin as she signed paperwork before the team started digging.

The challenge, though, was that the family of four had visited the house only twice; they relied on rough memories and verbal instructions from Chrissie’s uncle, Gary, over speakerphone to pinpoint the location of the cremains.

Work trucks, some with Pacific Gas and Electric Co., were among the only other occupants roaming The Plantation on Saturday morning. Newland said construction crews were scheduled to start clearing out the lot’s rubble the following week. This was the last chance to find those remains.

‘She lives for searching’

Kayle, the border collie, has the essential job of narrowing down target areas within the house to save precious time. Having trained her to sniff out human remains, Grebenkemper estimates he and the dog have traveled 200,000 miles together.

“This was a little more unusual in that she’s never done this before,” Grebenkemper said. “She’s 10 years old and we wanted to see if she could meet the challenge … She lives for searching.”

In June 2017, the National Geographic Society hired Grebenkemper and Kayle to search for the remains of Amelia Earhart. (National Geographic’s findings and analysis from that excursion have yet to be released, and Earhart’s fate remains a topic of dispute.) They’ve also looked for remains of members of the Donner Party, Grebenkemper says.

Kayle works quickly. After humans stand back a few feet and give her nose some room to work, she sniffs eagerly through the homes, then hunts for cremains. When she finds the scent of them, she simply sits down.

Less than five minutes after marking two target areas, Kayle hopped out of the rubble and greeted the Westons for congratulatory pets and rubs.

Eventually, clues led Newland, Medin and Sapolu from Kayle’s starting point in the bedroom to the nearby bathroom and then an adjacent closet, where Chrissie’s uncle Gary recalled that the ashes – kept in two cardboard boxes – had been kept on a shelf near cowboy hats.

Cue the detective work. After a few false leads, Medin found fiberglass, indicating she was in the bathroom rather than closet. Then she found a boot spur – getting warmer. Then she located a destroyed light fixture, which the uncle said was directly across from the closet’s shelves.

Eventually, Sapolu found a chunk of burned leather – either boots or a cowboy hat, the trio figured – and after about 20 more minutes of isolating and troweling, Newland noticed the salmon tinge of human ashes. They were not, however, able to find a medallion before they had to move on to the next assigned home.

The cremains were placed into a large Ziploc-style plastic bag and handed by Medin over to an overjoyed Chrissie Weston.

Sapolu then presented her with a green-and-gold decorative urn he created at Sacramento State with a professor.

“It’s beautiful,” Chrissie said, promising to send a thank-you letter.

Tragically, though, this wasn’t the first time the Westons’ lives have been touched by a California wildfire. In 2012, Chrissie’s parents’ homestead near Mount Lassen was among about 50 buildings destroyed by the Ponderosa Fire, which was sparked by lightning.

“It means so much,” Chrissie said. “It’s hard knowing they’re up here – alone, in storms – and it was hard on us. So having them recovered is what needs to happen, and to be back with our family.”

‘I need to hold him’

On Saturday, the teams recovered 19 sets of cremains, and a total of 53 sets were found between Friday and Sunday. The group has helped 117 families to date, coordinator Lisa Lee said Monday.

As Medin explained, these digs vary in complexity. She said the double-wide mobile home was not a “textbook case,” ending without the recovery of a medallion.

Others are easier – on one occasion, the cremains sought were left on a box on top of a bed. Medin’s team found them within minutes, as soon as they located the bed’s springs.

It’s a highly emotional experience for many families. Medin told the story of a woman who had lost her husband of 55 years a few years before she lost her home to the wildfire. His ashes were kept in a cabinet along with his ceramic 49ers memorabilia.

“We put this all in the bags, and so the bags were kind of heavy because we had the ceramics mixed with them. And this very petite, tiny woman, she’s trying to hold these bags and one of them slips through her arms and I caught it before it dropped on the ground. And I said, ‘I’ll carry this to the car for you.’ And she said, ‘No, no, no. I need to hold him.’ That’s why we do this.”

A majority of the community’s 26,000 residents were left without homes, schools or churches as the Camp Fire destroyed more than 18,000 structures. Newland said the Paradise cremains recovery is still mostly a word-of-mouth operation for now, with fliers posted at evacuation centers to notify residents.

The campaign has one more trip to Paradise planned in January, and the volunteers may make another trip after that, Newland said.

Newland further highlighting the importance of raising awareness and getting the official blessing of FEMA or CalOES, as he estimated a paid non-volunteer campaign of this magnitude would be a $500,000 job. His group was doing it on roughly $15,000, raised via GoFundMe.

The GoFundMe page summarizes the campaign in four short words: “Returning Lost Loved Ones.”

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Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.