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article imageSmall team leads harrowing search for California fire victims

By Laurent BANGUET (AFP)     Nov 12, 2018 in World

A small team searching for victims of one of California's deadliest fires happen upon a man lying face down between two ash-covered pickup trucks. His body and clothes seem intact, aside from hideous burns around his calves.

"You never get used to it. You have to face reality," says one of a trio of sheriff deputies searching for the dead in the wreckage around the town of Paradise.

"Everybody has its own way to cope with it," he mused. "Mine? Better leave that unanswered."

The "Camp Fire" in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains north of the state capital Sacramento has claimed 29 lives, razed 6,400 buildings and effectively wiped Paradise off the map.

Burnt vehicles litter the a road in Paradise  California after flames from the Camp Fire tore throug...
Burnt vehicles litter the a road in Paradise, California after flames from the Camp Fire tore through the area
Josh Edelson, AFP

For the past days, this team -- one deputy from Butte County and two from neighboring Yuba County -- has scoured the town and the many nearby communities nestled in this hilly area searching for human remains.

On Sunday the team drove several miles up a steep rocky road keeping an eye out for possible victims. They refused to give their names and had little to say as they focused on their macabre task.

- Many people missing -

Sheriff deputies prepare to move a body found between two pickup trucks into a hearse that followed ...
Sheriff deputies prepare to move a body found between two pickup trucks into a hearse that followed them from the town of Paradise
Josh Edelson, AFP

Scores of people have gone missing since the wildfire broke out on Thursday and swept through the area.

Some survivors may be huddled in a hotel or at a shelter, unable to communicate with loved ones because the fire has destroyed area cell phone towers.

Others -- like the man face down on the hills overlooking Lake Concow -- were caught by the fast-moving flames as they tried to escape the inferno.

Was he overcome by smoke? Did he live at the nearby farm, of which nothing survived except for scorched marijuana plants inside the charred shell of a greenhouse?

"Far too early to tell" said one of the Yuba County deputies.

- Abandoned vehicles -

The deputies took pictures, noted GPS coordinates, and picked up documents inside the cars in hopes of eventually making an identification.

Sheriff deputies load the body of an unknown man who died in California's Camp Fire into a hear...
Sheriff deputies load the body of an unknown man who died in California's Camp Fire into a hearse
Josh Edelson, AFP

They lifted the corpse, placed it in a body bag, and loaded it into a hearse that had followed them from Paradise.

Without wasting time they resumed their search for fire victims.

Dozens of cars and trucks, some seemingly intact, litter the sides of roads in the area. The deputies check each one for victims.

Inside the shell of one torched vehicle that had slammed into a tree they find a ball of burnt flesh the size of a small child.

A deputy carefully removes it and places the remains on a white tarp for careful examination.

"No skull. It's an animal!" he cries out after several minutes.

The deputy wipes his hands and a brief smile crosses his face. "We're moving on," he says.

A helicopter drops water on flames in the hills east of Paradise  California
A helicopter drops water on flames in the hills east of Paradise, California
Josh Edelson, AFP

The team continues on the meandering road and eventually reach an abandoned farm, where ducks, geese and goats roam freely.

The unexpected encounter with farm animals breaks the tension -- but as they drive off, with just one more hour of sunlight available, the hearse blows a tire.

"We're done," one of the deputies says.

"We'll get back to it tomorrow."

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