A search and rescue experience in the apocalypse of California’s wildfires

A search and rescue experience in the apocalypse of California’s wildfires

The North Complex Fire is still burning in Butte County, Northern California. It’s one of the worst wildfires in California history and has ravaged a vast area, some 40 miles long and 20 miles wide. My two days there were a visit to a different planet. We were part of a K9 search and rescue team, sent to look for dead bodies. Our team consisted of 4 humans and 2 dogs, a German shepherd and a Malinois. We were part of a larger search and rescue operation that had teams from almost every county in Northern California, several hundred individuals. Each morning, we were sent out to our assignments after signing in, listening to a 7 am briefing and after checking out various pieces of equipment which included a radio, a gadget called a nano that would track our whereabouts all day and through which we could send an emergency signal if necessary, a can of red spray paint to mark areas that were searched and a complete K9 first aid, trauma kit.

We joined a caravan of vehicles heading to the different search assignments, passing through a police roadblock that was set up to prevent non-residents or anyone without permits from entering the area. The officer signaled us to stop, approached our vehicle asking to see our permit. When we rolled down the window he saw our uniform patches, radios, maps, other gear and he stepped back and waved us through.

What we entered then was a vast scene of devastation that stretched out mile after mile, like Hiroshima or the post-apocalyptic scenes from the novel, The Road. I never saw or experienced anything like it in my life. This was truly like a different planet where everything had a different meaning. The sprinkling of ash across the whole landscape looked like a recent snowfall, smoke came up from holes in the ground that were pits where the ground had given way and revealed underground root systems that were still burning. You realized that you were walking over very unstable ground and directly over a barbecue waiting for you to fall in. The trees that survived were charred at the bottom but deadly and dangerous because they were weakened and liable to fall at the least puff of wind.

We saw strange metallic shapes, they looked like long flattened snakes and were formed when little molten creeks streamed out of from anything made of metal; cars, ladders, boats or whatever and which had then hardened when the air cooled – they would be perfect for a sculptor. We smelled corpses that turned out to be a large fenced enclosure full of dead chickens… and then a dead horse in a paddock, a goose still alive and running around free.

At a marijuana grow we found a large metal crate that was full of melted guns, exploded ammunition and strangely, a stack of what looked like coins, but were unrecognizable. On the property were also two padlocked shipping containers, both blistered from the heat which had who knows what inside them, although our cadaver dogs said it wasn’t dead human bodies. This grow was on a hilltop with a perfect 360 degree view of the surroundings, and with all the weapons strewn on the ground it felt like the ruins of a castle that had been prepared for a major battle.

We found another grow that had a fenced enclosure with the wired fence that curved inwards on the top, in other words designed to keep something or someone inside from getting out rather than the reverse.

We met a couple that was going through the rubble of their house. They pointed out a very large metal cross that had survived the fire. It was a memorial to their son who had died in a car crash two years earlier. They were going to put it in their truck and take it with them. We offered to help them but they said no thanks, we offered them water or gatorade but they smiled and said no thanks. I’m sure they went and carried their own cross but we were gone by then and didn’t see that.

I learned from the person I was flanking and who had been to many of these fire scenes that sometimes when you go through the rubble of a home and you find the one thing that survived, like a coffee mug or a pottery vase, you brush the ash off and stand it up on the foundation or some platform that remains – and you leave it there, the one tiny item that ‘makes sense’ in a sea of chaos. I don’t know exactly how to articulate what that meant but I understood it. It’s a message of empathy from the visitors from that other planet, earth who had passed by and saw what you had lost and understood it, at least on some level. We left objects like that propped up as little messages to someone in three of the ruined homes we walked through.

We didn’t find any human remains.

We weren’t allowed to take pictures. No one wanted people to learn that their home or entire neighborhood had been destroyed by first seeing it posted by some stranger on facebook. But in any case, pictures would not really have communicated the sensations of walking across the surface of this planet, and the sense of enormous, incomprehensible violence that had swept through just days earlier and which was still raging in some parts.

At the end of the day we passed through a decontamination station manned by the National Guard. They were all young and very healthy looking, with US ARMY on their uniform shirts and playing frisbee while they waited for searchers to return to base. When it was our turn they ushered us through the various stations of the decontamination process, flushed the toxic waste from our clothes, boots and skin but not the mental images that we carried home with us.

Northern California, Anno Domini 2020