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After wildfire, Calif. authorities struggle to find the missing and the dead

It’s been three weeks since the devastating Camp Fire swept through California, leaving at least 88 people dead. In its aftermath, forensic anthropologists comb through mountains of ash in search of human remains. At the same time, law enforcement and other officials struggle to understand the whereabouts of the 190 people still missing. William Brangham reports from Paradise.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's now been three weeks since the devastating Camp Fire swept through the town of Paradise, California, and its surroundings, leaving 88 people dead, thousands displaced from their homes, and entire communities reeling from the deadliest fire in the state's history.

    But, as William Brangham reports, the work continues for crews searching among the ashes.

  • William Brangham:

    Its 10:00 a.m., it's raining. In heavy protective gear, with shovels and masks and goggles, this is how they search for the missing in Paradise, California.

    This team was alerted that a missing person might have been here during the fire, and so now they move through the ruins, combing the ash for any trace.

    They find what appear to be a few tiny bone fragments. They're gingerly passed around and collected. A forensic anthropologist will be called to determine if they have found what they're looking for.

    How do you explain what a forensic anthropologist is?

  • Colleen Milligan:

    I say what I specialize in is human bones in particular. And the forensic part means that I assist law enforcement on case work related to human remains.

    We see smaller teeth. We see a smaller face and jaw complex.

  • William Brangham:

    Colleen Milligan is a professor at California State University Chico. She often travels across the country doing forensic work, but, this time, it's much closer to home.

  • Colleen Milligan:

    What you are really trying to be mindful of is that, as you move through these searches, you're also moving through some of the most intimate parts of anybody's life.

    You go through their houses. You go essentially through their communities. You look for their neighbors, their family members.

  • William Brangham:

    Her community, of course, will likely never be the same again. The fast-moving inferno that swept through Paradise three weeks ago has deformed and destroyed nearly the whole town.

    Entire businesses are gone. The Safeway supermarket is unrecognizable. What once were homes are now just piles of ash. It's like this, here in Paradise on street after street.

    The thousands of people who were lucky enough to escape are now homeless evacuees trying to figure out what's next. As of today, we know that nearly 90 people were not so lucky.

    But here's the question: Where are the estimated 190 who are still missing?

  • Man:

    We have hundreds of people who've been listed as missing, right? And what we're doing is kind of crossing the T's, dotting the I's, and making sure that everybody comes home safe and sound.

  • William Brangham:

    This is how the Butte County Sheriff's Department is trying to find out.

  • Man:

    Is this Marie? Marie, Deputy Angel of the Butte County Sheriff's Office.

  • William Brangham:

    Working off one master list, this rotating team of over a dozen officers are working the phones.

  • Man:

    Was there ever an Elizabeth that lived with you?

  • William Brangham:

    Combing through maps and photographs and social media.

  • Man:

    I might have a line on John McPhee.

  • William Brangham:

    Trying to determine who on this list is actually missing and who's there because of simple errors.

  • Man:

    It's not a duplicate. It's just a misspelling.

  • Sgt. Jason Hail:

    We're just trying to exhaust every means available to us as investigators, just trying to find those people.

  • William Brangham:

    Sergeant Jason Hail helps oversee this effort, but, like many on this team, he's working while his own community is devastated.

    Hail's home in Paradise was spared. He had to evacuate, like everyone else, but several of his colleagues lost everything.

  • Sgt. Jason Hail:

    It's difficult to focus on your job, and at the same time your personal life has been totally turned upside down. I have worked for the Sheriff's Office for 23 years, and this is — it's unprecedented anywhere, but when it affects you personally and when you have something of this magnitude, it is very difficult.

  • Man:

    I'm working the missing persons, and I have a Donald Brown.

  • William Brangham:

    If investigators can't find any trace of a person, those names and addresses are given to the search teams, so they can go back into the fire zone.

    A typical house burns at well over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. With the intense winds that fueled the Camp Fired, that fire can burn even hotter. That heat can reduce a typical home, along with everything in it, down to just a few inches of ash. And if a person were in that home, finding any trace of them can be extremely difficult.

  • Colleen Milligan:

    The types of remains in this particular instance range from what is typically seen with most fires. But there are others that are much closer to what we think of as a cremation process, which makes it much, much more difficult to spot in debris piles that are largely the same color.

  • William Brangham:

    Not only are searchers looking for bone fragments that could be just an inch or smaller in size, but the very ash they're digging through could have hidden dangers.

    Think of all the things we have in houses, all the plastics, all the household cleaning supplies, paint, all of our furniture. When you burn that material at a high heat, some of those things release toxic chemicals. Those chemicals can get left behind in that ash, and that can pose a hazard for the people who have to dig through all this.

    Despite all that, the team at this house thinks it's found something. One of Colleen Milligan's colleagues arrives to inspect the fragments.

    It's a false alarm. They're animal bones, not human. So, the team packs up and leaves, off to the next site and to the next search.

  • Colleen Milligan:

    You would hope that this never happens in your home community.

    But to be able to assist your community in this capacity, that certainly makes you feel very valuable. And it certainly makes you feel like you are giving something back.

  • William Brangham:

    But it turns out yesterday was the team's last official day in the field. Late last night, the sheriff said they have exhausted all possible leads for now.

    Officials won't say what that means for the nearly 190 people who are still unaccounted for.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Paradise, California.

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