“Nearly 6,000 active-duty troops remain deployed from the Gulf Coast to Southern California, where they are putting up tents and stringing concertina wire to face a ragtag band that is still not near the border.”November 13, 2018, “The Caravan Is Still Coming. But Since the Midterms, Trump Shrugs.” The New York Times, Page A12.
On November 13, Kory Honea, the Sheriff and Coroner of Butte County, California, announced during a daily press briefing that he had “put in another order for 100 National Guard troops.” The reason for this, Honea explained, was to speed up the work of canvassing the destroyed structures and burnt vehicles for bodies. The Sheriff and Coroner wanted the residents of Butte County to know that, “when the time comes to let people back into the area, we can be reasonably sure that we have searched the area for human remains.”
So far, 56 bodies have been found. One hundred thirty people are still unaccounted for.
The work of searching for signs of death after a wildfire is slow and strenuous. The fires’ intense heat quickly reduces objects to ash; and what’s left of a person are not immediately recognizable. A skull can look like a pot. A bone resembles a rock. Trained cadaver dogs are brought along to help sniff out where the human remains could be. But the only real way to do this work is to walk, burnt house by burnt house, examine the debris, make an educated guess, and then let the coroner take over. The work is done in teams, with search and rescue experts leading volunteers.
It’s also dangerous work. The air in Butte County is full of hazardous chemicals, lung-damaging particulates, and unrelenting smoke from the fires still burning. Protective jumpsuits, helmets and breathing masks are necessary gears.
The immense scale of the Camp Fire’s damage only adds to those difficulties. As of this writing, 10,321 structures are known have been destroyed, of which 8,756 are homes. The total burn area is now 140,000 acres.
But finding the bodies is just the beginning. When the evacuation order lifts, for thousands of families, there will be nothing to go back to. Worse than nothing. The town of Paradise is gone. It is not habitable. Before anything else can happen, the toxic debris from more than 10,000 destroyed houses and buildings must be cleared away. And who will be there to help?
The president? In the immediate days after the Camp Fire erupted, Trump’s response was to make up lies about California’s forestry management and threaten to withhold future federal funding. There is nothing to be gained, in his reality, from responding to new disasters. After a public rebuke, he relented and approved federal disaster declaration for Butte, Los Angeles, and Ventura counties. The latest news is that Trump will visit California on Saturday. The White House has released no other details.
Right now, 5,600 active-duty military and 2,100 National Guard troops sit at the U.S.-Mexico border, where the president sent them, with nothing to do. They wait to charge their phones, so they can talk to their families. The migrants they’re supposed to intercept are weeks away, if they ever show up at all; the midterm elections, for which the stunt deployment was conceived, are over.
The real movement is in California, where nearly a quarter million people were forced to evacuate in a single week. Sheriff Honea is waiting for his 100 National Guard troops to arrive. Considered against the colossal waste of the border deployment, the modesty of Sheriff Honea’s request is painfully touching. One hundred National Guard members. That’s maybe a dozen more search and rescue teams. When they join the 461 search and rescue personnel already there, it will mean 561 people walking the hundreds of miles of charred streets, not in the hope of finding anyone alive, but to find enough of a body to identify the person.