In Rain and Mud While Others Eat Holiday Meals, They Seek the Remains of the Dead
The first significant rain event of the season would assist the firefighters in quashing the flames of California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire, but would simultaneously make the search for remains of its victims more challenging.
The team would spend their Thanksgiving and the following two days searching through ashes and charred building in the remote areas of Concow, Big Bend, Yankee Hill, Cherokee, and Paradise for those still missing and presumed dead. Their efforts the first two days were focused on clearing houses that had not been searched so that those areas near Hwy 70 could be repopulated.
The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Posse Search and Rescue is funded entirely through donations. The Posse has around thirty active members, according to Commander Bryan Raskin. It’s a group of volunteers with diverse skill sets, which Raskin says makes it a complete organization, and team members range in age from people in their 70’s to their youngest and newest member who is just 18. John Hokman, has been involved the longest. He started his service in 1968.
There are monthly trainings that coincide with their monthly meetings, quarterly trainings and at least one weekend campout training a year. Members learn a variety of skills including first aid, search management, ropes, tracking and body extraction. They also may assist with crime scenes and help with local running and biking events including the Tour of the Unknown Coast.
Five members of the Posse arrived at the Incident Command Post at Thermalito Forebay North Picnic Area to find the yurt city constructed to house search crews nearly abandoned. Many of the teams that had been searching for days had returned home for the holidays. With a break in the rain, the eerie calm was emphasized by the hum of generators powering the camp. The field that served as a parking lot for heavy vehicles that had been bone dry just days before was now a muddy mess crisscrossed with deep trenches cut by tires.
Thanksgiving morning, Team Leader Mike Robertson returned to the yurt following a briefing and told the team the Incident Command Post was being moved to the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds where Cal Fire had set up to fight the blaze. Robertson, 61, is a big man, with a big laugh, and a big Resistol cowboy hat with gold tassels around the brim. He’s also the raconteur of the group and the Executive Captain of the posse. With 22 years volunteering for the posse, the self-employed veteran of the US Army lives in Hoopa and is the senior member of the team.
The team headed for breakfast before their morning briefing. Inmates from the California Department of Corrections served piles of food, their orange jumpsuits a stark contrast to the stainless steel of the kitchen trailer around them. The man handing out food enthusiastically wishes the search posse a Happy Thanksgiving.
After packing up, the team headed to their morning briefing where they learned they would be searching houses in the Concow Area off of Hwy 70 just south of the fire’s origin. They get instructions on the priority areas to look in houses and safety warnings concerning the weather, possible debris flows, and falling trees.
The team is paired with an engine company from Hayward, that will assist them in clearing the debris from destroyed homes so they can search through the ashes underneath.
Following the briefing, they load into the Posse’s Ford F350 and head north on Hwy 70 for Scooter’s Cafe, the staging area for the Concow branch of the search.
As they near their destination, the signs of the fire become more obvious. Houses reduced to their foundations dot the side of the highway.
Acting Officer Ty Zollner with the Alameda Fire Department updates the team on their mission for the day. Zollner and his fellow firefighters have been at the Camp Fire since day one. He lives in Redding. However, he went to high school in Humboldt. Zollner said he’s never been paired with a search and rescue team before the Camp Fire and that the size and scope of the fire in unlike anything he’s ever seen.
“The task is to try and bring closure to families that were cut off,” said Zollner. “You remind yourself there are still hundreds of people unaccounted for.”
A light rain begins to fall as the crew gets into their protective Tyvek suits and rain gear. They don’t have far to go before they’re at their first search site. They make their way up a nearby road to a house nearby. A charred car and truck sit near the destroyed home.
As the crew spreads out to search, Sam Kuckens searches a truck near the residence. Kukens has been on the posse for about a year and a half. The 22-year-old originally from the San Jose area is attending HSU and working toward a degree in recreation administration. He joined the posse after hearing about it from a friend. “It sounded like a good cause and something to keep myself busy.”
While Kuckens searches the cars and perimeter, Logan Mitchell, Captain of the posse’s ground crew searches a bathtub full of ash and tile. Bathrooms are a high priority area to search in homes destroyed by fire. So are the doorways, and bedrooms. Mitchell, age 22, is originally from the Bay Area and is currently enrolled in the police academy at College of the Redwoods. He plans to graduate this December and hopes to join the Rio Dell Police Department.
Mitchell got involved with the posse after a chance encounter with one of its members while he was working at Picky Picky Picky in Eureka. Posse Commander Bryan Raskin was buying a pair of green Carhart’s and Mitchell asked if he was a Sheriff’s deputy, since that is typically who buys them. Raskin explained he was on the Search and Rescue Posse and encouraged Mitchell to check it out. He downloaded the application from the Posse’s website and sent it in.
Soon the crew located some animal bones and an antler in the corner of what looked to be a bedroom. To be certain they weren’t human, they flag the area and put in a call to the higher ups to see if a team should be sent out from Anthropology.
Before loading up and heading to their next location, team members spray paint bright orange x’s on the two vehicles, indicating that no remains were found inside them, and a large x is sprayed on the ground near the home with information using FEMA codes to let other crews know when the location was searched, which agency searched it, and if any remains were found.
They would spend the rest of the day searching in Big Bend and the area of Yankee Hill in an effort to cross all the houses that hadn’t been checked in that area. Driving from location to location, the roads were sometimes a muddy red-orange clay that was difficult to navigate.
A house in Big Bend with a metal roof had wild turkeys in the yard as they arrived as well as a slightly singed chicken that survived the flames. Inside the ashen remnants of the home was a refrigerator with a turkey that appeared to have survived the blaze because it was frozen. The rest of the refrigerator’s contents were turned to ash. The crew would not find any possible human remains on this search.
At the end of the day, the team headed to The Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico to decontaminate, get food, and get some much needed rest. They drive through Paradise on their way back, on Pearson Road where several cars were burned after the traffic backed up. Most of the roadway has been cleared but the scope and scale of the devastation is hard to describe. Photos don’t do it justice, nor does drone footage. Mile after mile of the return journey is almost total destruction. The team and a few others are housed in one of the fairground’s buildings for the night. The lights are cut early and the search team heads to bed.
The following morning starts with breakfast and the morning briefing. This day, Friday, they will be searching the Cherokee area east of Hwy 70, working with the same crew from Hayward. After meeting up at the staging area at Scooters, the team heads for Cherokee.
The conditions are miserable. The day before was light intermittent showers, but the rain is back with a vengeance, as is the icy cold and the winds.
As the rain falls hard they search several locations. They clear them all, finding no evidence of human remains. The wind and the rain continue to pick up.
As they return to Scooters cold, wet, and muddy, they wait for the data they have gathered to be uploaded. They eat lunch from the giant brown paper lunch bags provided to them under the awning of Scooters, huddled with other searchers and firefighters seeking refuge from the rain. After a wait, they are let loose early and return to the fairgrounds.Saturday is the team’s final day of searching. After the briefing, they learn they have been assigned to search in Paradise. They will be part of a larger group designated Alpha Team 5 and made up of Search and Rescue Teams from Kern County, Yolo County, and California Search and Rescue Dog Association member Kayla Hardin of Oceanside and her search dog Darwin, an Australian Kelpie. Sgt. Zack Bittle, a 23-year-veteran of the Kern County Sheriff’s Department was in charge of the team. As the team gets directions to the staging area, the parking lot of the Tall Pines Entertainment Center on Clark Road in Paradise, Bittle tells them, “You can’t miss it. It’s one of the only buildings left standing.”
The first location they search has several houses on a dirt road. The GPS coordinates that the team received is in between two structures, so they search them both. The crew from Humboldt and the two searchers from Yolo County are assigned a house that had a burned tree fallen onto what little remained of the structure.
A bright orange warning is spray painted on a sagging stucco wall, Unstable. Firefighters from Stanislaus County assist in moving debris. They also bring in a chainsaw to remove the downed limbs.
With the chainsaw whirring in the background, Kate Witthaus removes debris from one area of the house. The 38-year-old originally moved to Humboldt County from Santa Rosa to attend HSU and is currently the CEO of the Northern California Community Blood Bank. She’s also an EMT and in the course of that training she encounter the Search and Rescue Posse and learned about them. She felt it was a good fit for her skills, including being comfortable in the outdoors, being comfortable in extreme environments, as well as using a compass and topo map to navigate in the forest.
While she worked to clear one area of the house, Kris Cunningham worked another. Cunningham is six feet tall with broad shoulders and has a slightly imposing stature, but it is quickly mitigated by his soft-spoken and thoughtful nature. He became interested in the Search and Rescue Posse after following the story of a missing HSU student who was found deceased at the bottom of Elephant Rock. He went online and found the posse’s website.
“After telling my girlfriend everyday for a week I was going to join, I looked them up,” said Cunningham. Since joining, he’s been on two other mutual aid searches, and hasn’t missed a training. The teams finish the searches of the two houses and take a break for lunch.
For a moment, the sun comes out.
After lunch they head to another house, one where neighbors haven’t been able to contact the elderly occupants. A melted cell phone is found in the driveway with the charging cable still attached. The couple’s truck is not in the driveway.
Shortly after being deployed, Darwin finds some charred bones. They turn out to be animal remains, most likely a deer. The crews continue to search the property and house more thoroughly than the searches from the previous days because the occupants are officially missing. Eventually the team clears the location without locating any remains. Alpha Team 5 has completed their tasks, but with a few hours of daylight they head back to the staging area to see if they can get another assignment.
After a brief waiting period, the group heads back out for a final search of a mobile home in a retirement community. Darwin doesn’t hit on any remains but the crew searches thoroughly because the elderly occupant is missing and is wheelchair bound. Part of a burned wheelchair is located near the mobile home by Robertson and a member of the Kern County team, but no remains are found.
As the sunlight begins to dwindle, Alpha Team 5 leader Sgt. Bittle took stock of the job the group had done. “We’re up here in Paradise today and we cleared two locations doing very detailed searches looking for victims,” adding that this would likely be their last search of the day because they were running out of sunlight. He added that the volunteers were doing an excellent job and couldn’t be praised enough.
After clearing their final location, the team headed back to the staging area and then back to the Incident Command Post.
All the members of the team agreed that their task was rewarding to them in their own way. They also encouraged anyone interested in joining to apply or to donate money to help them continue to do this work.
Humboldt County Sheriff Bill Honsal agreed that people interested should join. Reached by phone Tuesday morning he praised the effort and dedication of these volunteers saying that many times they end up spending their own money to buy gear. And, he noted, they provide a valuable service to the Sheriff’s Department.
The main thing we activate the posse for is search and rescue operations. That is their primary function. The Sheriff is mandated to perform these duties if someone gets lost, or there’s a missing person or stranded hiker we get activated and then we activate the posse to supplement our resources.
He added that the posse is “a real vital resource that the Sheriff’s Office and the County really needs to perform our function.”
Honsal said he was very happy to hear that there were five people from the posse that were willing to help out with Butte County’s operations. “I wish that we could do more,” he said. He added that the posse is “a really, really important function. It’s obviously not a glamorous function, but if you are a family member who is missing a loved one, it’s a vital resource…”
He also said, “We are always looking for volunteers in our posse, it is actually something you can start giving back to your community once you are trained.”
At the end of their last day searching, when posse member Kris Cunningham, was asked about the challenging conditions, he said, “It’s hard, dirty work that isn’t for everyone. It’s not that much different from doing stucco work with my dad. My feet were wet and there’s dust going up my nose. But because there’s such a bigger purpose even though you’re wet and a little miserable, it’s awesome.”
The five member team is now home but, yesterday, another volunteer team from the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Posse Search and Rescue headed down to look for those who are missing. Jan Freidrichsen and her dog Gray-Sea, also posse members, who had been part of the search efforts prior to Thanksgiving will be returning to Paradise to assist as well.
The National Weather Service has issued a Flash Flood Warning for the area.
May all of our searchers be safe.
Humboldt Area Foundation, we’re tagging you because this sounds like the generosity you are looking for in the stories you are gathering for your #100ActsofGiving .
Note: Photographer Mark McKenna is in a relationship with Kate Witthaus.
Note: Zollner was misspelled in the original version. And the name of his fire department was incorrect.