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Amid the rubble and ruins left in the wake of the Camp Fire in Paradise – a blaze that has claimed more than 80 lives – there was a reason to celebrate for Orange County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue Reserve Capt. Chuck Williams.
Williams and his K9 partner, Cinder, a 2-year-old black Labrador trained to find human remains, were part of a 25-member strike team in Paradise that included the Shasta County Sheriff’s Department, the National Guard and Cal OES Fire. Their mission was to account for individuals listed as missing, many of whom were elderly.
“Paradise has a large retirement community,” said Cal Fire Capt. Sean Norman of Butte County in an interview with a media outlet. “This was an urban firestorm that swept through a densely packed community, unfortunately with a lot of people who were vulnerable, so it’s tough.”
With 14 years of experience searching for human remains, Williams, who with his colleagues recently returned to Orange County, was anticipating the worst. But he took solace in knowing his work would at least bring some closure to families who otherwise would be left wondering what happened to their loved ones.
“That, to me, is something incredibly powerful, and it’s a gift,” Williams, one of nine OCSD volunteers who reported to Paradise to help with search and rescue efforts.
“I can’t imagine (anything) much worse than not knowing if a loved one is alive or dead. So in our small fashion, we try and help in that process.”
The strike team was sent on a priority-one search to an address where residents had been listed as missing.
“Our job is to go in and clear that address,” Williams said. “We’re driving thought this (area) that looks like a war zone. We can’t tell where this place is. There are no street signs … All we saw, typically, was chimneys and rubble.”
A fire captain with the team noticed a cabin completely intact with smoke coming out of the chimney.
So some team members made their way to the house and found a 91-year-old man with dementia and his caregiver, both very much alive and healthy.
As it turns out, the two were unable to escape so they hunkered down in the cabin and took their chances, Williams said.
Williams figures they’d been there on their own for about eight days and had enough food, water and heat to survive.
“All of us were touched, because we’d been dealing with days of finding nothing and just dealing with the devastation of what we were seeing,” Williams said. “They were on the missing list, so that is why we rejoiced. We were high-fiving. That, from my perspective, made the entire experience that much more positive.”
The search in Paradise was the second mission for Cinder, who also searched for human remains during the Montecito mudslides in January.
The Camp Fire destroyed more than 14,000 homes and businesses, making it the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.
“I never found human remains,” said Williams, who slept in gymnasiums and large sleeping trailers in between searches. “I think, unfortunately, there are going to be people who will not be found.”
There was another takeaway for Williams, who was off on another mission two days after returning from Paradise.
“I was very impressed and pleased with the unified command system that took place between fire and law enforcement,” he said. “The professionals, the volunteers …. everybody up there just has a heart to serve.”
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