"What Once Was" — The Aftermath of the Camp Fire
A collection of photos and portraiture of the rescuers involved in remains recovery during the Camp Fire in Butte County, CA, 2018.
SEARCHING FOR WHAT ONCE WAS: THE STORY OF THE RESCUERS DURING THE CAMP FIRE.
Butte County, CA, 2018.
Photographs and text by Mitchell Quiring.
WARNING: LAST PHOTO CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGERY OF AN ANIMAL.
It was about 4:00pm on November 11th, 2018— the sun was nearing it’s wind down for the day and all was quiet as I prepared to head to the gym to get a workout in. I had been keeping up with the news about the Camp Fire, which had broken out only 2-3 days prior on November 8th. It was an easy tell that this was going to be a hugely destructive and costly fire— both in property and human lives. As I was nearing my departure time, the silence was broken as my phone loudly alerted me to an incoming SAR call. I picked up on speaker phone and immediately began to scramble and ready myself to respond. However, the call that came in was not for a job in our own county, but a mutual aide request from Butte County with a request for human remain recovery teams. Though these mutual aide requests remain just as urgent, they require a larger preparation time since you need to pack more equipment and self-sufficiency gear— Butte County, in particular was this way as it was extremely difficult to gauge what conditions we would find ourselves in for the following days. After coordinating with fellow responders and our Deputy SAR Coordinator, we were bags packed (including hazmat gear) and “wheel’s up” by 5:45p. They are about a 6 hour drive us, so we landed nearing midnight and slept in a middle school classroom in Chico, CA, on the floor. As we drove down into the valley from the mountains, the smoke was tangibly thick. I’ll never forget the moment we all donned our Organic Vapor Respirators while driving in— just to breathe.
As we entered into the town of Paradise, CA, on the morning of November 12th, 2018, our minds were emptied. Logic and reason failed to wrap itself in a coherent presentation. How does one begin to describe total destruction? A war zone without the craters? A fine rumble remains of folks’ once-lives? Empty it left us. All we could do was seat ourselves and our minds in the nook of duty— we are there to perform a very specific task; We are there to bring closure. We are there to finely sift through once-houses, cars, structures, yards— to find anyone who might have unfortunately perished in the onslaught of the Camp Fire.
We were given a list of houses to clear as Forward Operating Camp at Tall Pines Bowling Alley in Paradise before our departure to the neighborhoods. We would methodically rummage through the rumble in a hope to bring closure to families that were waiting to hear back from loved ones gone missing— this was done through aid of anthropologists, pathologists, and coroners. Each section of homes had their hot spots that we would check— beds, recliners/chairs, showers/bathtubs, etc. These areas had proven to have a high frequency of successful identifications, as was passed down by Incident Command.
At 1600 hours everyday, our operations would conclude and we would return to Forward Operating Command to debrief and decontaminate. Our sleep camp was moved to Durham High School gym, where everyone slept side-by-side, or “with several hundred of our closest friends.” Shower. Eat. Rest.
For the following two days, our assignment was shifted from home searches to searching through vehicles left behind, both intact and charred, and mark them with a large painted “X” if they were clear of human remains. I think that there is a large mutual feeling on our team that this proved to be leagues more mentally-stressing than property searching was. Each vehicle interior condition was impossible to determine until you were right upon it, staring down through the driver’s side door, peering for remains.
We drove back home to Mono County the morning of November 15th, with certain members of our team needing to tend to their personal lives’ and the lives of their families. We arrived home in the afternoon and began to further decontaminate our equipment- both team and personal gear. We all arrived back at our own homes, happy to have a night in our own beds. Safe. Sound. The sense of mourning of those lost and the scenes we witnessed never really receded— but a greater blanket of thankfulness covered it, albeit temporarily.
It was like clockwork— my own arrival at home had me checking the news again as I rested and the flutter of disaster swept right back through. The list of missing had skyrocketed to nearly a thousand people. The alarms bells start to ring again as another call had gone out within hours of the new list of missing people. Within 2 days we were back the road to Butte County.
The sheer magnitude of resources working on (what is know known as) the deadliest wildfire in California history as well as the most costly disaster in the United States last year brought a need for a true rescue/fire camp. Camp Forebay was born the few days we were away at home— a camp incalculable to the proper facilitation of the remaining rescue operations. I do not have any photos unfortunately, but take my word for it. Sleeping quarters, showers, decontamination stations, easy PPE distribution, mess halls, stationary consolidated Incident Command, and much more all in one place.
I didn’t take many photos for the next couple of days after we returned. I am only sharing two from the last day we were there, November 21st. It poured on us the entire day, which is why you see a slightly different search technique applied above. Additionally, the weight of the metal roofs, appliances, and frames were nearly impossible to move without the use of heavy equipment. This photo was taken one home over from where I discovered a fresh set of black and blue burnt bones right next to a chair in one of the crisped mobile homes. I remember the etherial nature of it all, masking it off and waiting for the anthropologist to determine the origin.
We all breathed a heavy sign of relief when the bones were determined to be animal in nature. It was extremely puzzling- and they agreed that they, to an untrained eye, resembled those of a human. As we began to make our way to the next home over, we came across an animal of some sort that had gotten stuck in barbed wire and essential cooked alive. The mixture of the stress of the pouring rain, health hazards, bone finds, and jarring views like that put all of us over the top. After almost a week and a half being on the job, it was time to go back home in time for Thanksgiving.
An exhausted self portrait.
For a week and a half we played the dance of dodging downed power lines, avoiding falling trees and still-smoldering hotspots. We did our duty. While our time working on the aftermath of the Camp Fire has come to an end, these images will remain to show the power and might of a fire that left Paradise as a “once-was.” Devoid of a logic and reason yet still, may these images lay some credence to our minds of what will hopefully never be again.