Chimney Sweep

Within the ruins of Paradise, a grim seek for indicators of life and loss of life

PARADISE, Butte County – Every familiar place had been reduced to rubble, but Tiffany Larson couldn’t handle that because she had a job to do.

Four days after the Paradise bonfire, an unknown number of people went missing on Monday. The last known number was over 200. Larson, a Butte County Sheriff’s investigator, was assigned to lead one of 13 search and recovery teams.

Your job was to look. She wasn’t always sure what exactly. Officials call the work Larson and others do “social controls,” but the hope is that controls don’t show up. The hope that is waning day by day is that the missing somehow got out of town and simply couldn’t make contact with loved ones.

But she and her team – three sheriff’s deputies and a chaplain – knew as they were tearing apart the remains of houses to find clues as to the whereabouts of a resident that the prospect of a corpse was always there.

Much of the city was ashes, from the city center to the country roads. The fire burned so hot that people were trapped in their homes and, in many cases, in their cars when they tried to escape.

Her search, supported by an address list, led her past compost bins filled with leaves on the curb. Rolling Rock and Heineken beer bottles melt on the floor. Canned Corn and Green Beans. Wheelchairs. What, if anything, did these things mean?

And then: curved white shards on a box spring bed.

“I think these are …” Larson said, pausing and pointing to what looked like thighbones.

“No, no, these are staples,” said Howard Baron, a sergeant in the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, as he bent down to take a closer look. “Bones have tiny pockets of air.”

Later: a longhorn ox skull, as it was used as decoration.

“This is what bones look like,” said Larson, peeling off a piece and tossing it in the rubble. “Do you see how different it looks now? You can barely see it. That is why this is such a daunting task. “

Baron worked on the ghost ship fire that killed 36 people in Oakland in 2016. Still, this was his first wildfire, and he said he had never seen anything like it.

Butte County investigator Tiffany Larson searches for victims of the campfire in Paradise, California on Monday, November 12, 2018. Larson lost her home in the wildfire.Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

They drove on. They hadn’t found anything – a kind of relief. Nobody wanted to find a body. But Larson knew that families wanted a solution and that the search would take weeks.

Larson thought of her own home, lost in the fire. She and her husband Bobby bought it six years ago. They had met in their sophomore year doing the Paradise High homecoming dance. He asked her to dance and that was it.

Her whole family lived here: three sisters, one brother, five brothers-in-law and four sisters-in-law. Grandparents too. Almost all of their houses were gone.

Bobby also works for the sheriff’s department. He is nights. She is days. Since the fire was lit, they have only seen each other about 10 minutes a day at a colleague’s in Chico, where they live with their four dogs and two cats.

The search continued on Monday. On Walnut Street, a man leaned over a fence and his sweatshirt said, “Posture is everything”. His was the only house on the street that survived. He couldn’t catch his cat so he decided to stay.

“Does he realize he’s lucky he’s not in a coroner’s pocket?” Asked Larson.

Butte County Investigator Tiffany Larson speaks to Alameda County Sheriff's Dept.  Sgt.Howard Baron after Camp Fire in Paradise, California on Monday, November 12, 2018.Butte County Investigator Tiffany Larson speaks to Alameda County Sheriff’s Dept. Sgt.Howard Baron after Camp Fire in Paradise, California on Monday, November 12, 2018.Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Nearby she found a rose that was burned black around the edges. Fires are fickle in what to take and what not, and this survived.

“Hey Sergeant, I have this for you,” Larson said with a smile.

For a moment he did too, the crow’s feet around his eyes deepening.

The work, however, has been gloomy and at times precarious. On Sunday, someone from another team climbed through the brittle concrete cover of a septic tank and almost submerged in the raw sewage.

At 1:30 p.m., Larson and Baron were looking for clues in the Palm Springs Mobile Home Park. They spotted one on a unit under tall pine trees: a white wheelchair lift.

The porch steps were gone and the railing hung in the air and led nowhere. An orange cat lay dead underneath.

“If they had got out and got into their car, it would theoretically have failed,” said Larson, pointing to the elevator.

“Unless there is another way out or someone took her,” said Baron. “But the pet is still there. The wheelchair is still there. The elevator is up. These are telltale signs. “

“Yeah,” added Larson, “someone is not going to put it back up trying to get rid of Hell.”

The aluminum roof of the motorhome had collapsed, warped, and everything was hidden underneath. The search team couldn’t go any further. The Cal Fire crews would have to come later and pull back the roof.

Larson marked the house with pink tape, indicating the possibility of a corpse in the house, and they moved on.

Lizzie Johnson is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: Twitter: @LizzieJohnsonnn

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