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Responders to Northern California fires face ‘unprecedented’ ordeal

A ‘monumental’ ordeal lies ahead for authorities dealing with fires in Northern California. Sheriff Kory Honea, who is also the coroner of Butte County, and his colleagues must lead evacuation efforts, attempt to locate missing people and tragically, sift through the ruins for bodies -- which are difficult to identify due to the intensity of the flames. He speaks by phone with Judy Woodruff.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And for a closer look at the terrible fire toll in the northern part of the state, Sheriff Kory Honea of Butte County joins us by phone.

    Sheriff Honea, so many people displaced, all the death there. What is your main task now?

  • Kory Honea:

    Well, from a law enforcement perspective and from a coroner's perspective, because I'm also the county coroner, we are first preparing ourselves, in the event that we need to evacuate additional areas.

    This fire is still going on, and so we have law enforcement officers here that would help with that. Once the area is evacuated, of course, then we have law enforcement officers who will remain there to provide security, to prevent, hopefully, anybody from getting in there and engaging in looting.

    And then, on the other side of that, many, many people have been displaced. We are receiving a lot of reports from people who cannot find friends or loved ones, and so we're investigating those as missing persons. That's a pretty daunting task, given the — how big this particular situation is.

    And in addition to that, we are in the process of going into the burned-out areas and recovering human remains that perished in the fire.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the process of identifying those remains, how are you dealing with that?

  • Kory Honea:

    So, that is a difficult process, made more difficult by the fact that many of these people succumbed to the fire.

    In some cases, we have badly burned bodies. In those cases, we — if there are fingerprints still available, we might use fingerprints to identify them. We can also use dental records. If that's not possible, we would look to use DNA.

    In other cases, the fire was so intense that all we have is skeletal or bone — skeletal remains or bones, and then we also believe that there is a high likelihood that some of the remains may have been completely consumed by the fire.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's just almost impossible to imagine how horrible.

    How are you going about trying to reunite people with their loved ones?

  • Kory Honea:

    So, we have got people dispersed all over. And, of course, we have a good number of them in shelters.

    But, beyond that, there were a lot of people that didn't go to shelters, and they either went with friends and family, or some got hotels in other locations. And so it has been a difficult task. We are working to try to do that.

    We are asking people, if they have — if they're missing a friend or a family member, to contact our office, and we will provide some numbers. So you can perhaps put that up.

    We ask that they contact us, and then we are checking our system to see if we can locate them. We're checking our — with the local shelters, trying to get information from the local shelters. And we're also asking those people who have reported them to utilize their own networks to try to locate them. And if they do, let us know.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are there any good stories you're able to find? Are you able to reunite people?

  • Kory Honea:

    We are.

    And although I don't have that specific number in front of me, but we have been able to find people and make sure that they were accounted for and reunite them. And that is a really positive thing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And do you have enough help? Do you have enough in your office and adjacent sheriff's offices to do the work that you need to get done?

  • Kory Honea:

    Well, certainly, my office is not big enough to take on — this is a monumental task. It's unprecedented, given what we're dealing, to think at this point we're on pace to be the most deadly — the deadliest fire in the history of California.

    So I have reached out through the California Law Enforcement Mutual Aid System. And as a result of that, I have law enforcement officers, search-and-rescue members, coroner's teams, a whole host of specialties and disciplines that have come throughout California to assist me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sheriff Kory Honea, dealing with what just sounds like an almost insurmountable job, but we certainly hope you're getting the help you need. And we wish you the very best.

    Thank you.

  • Kory Honea:

    Thank you. I appreciate it.

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