Search for Camp Fire remains intensifies ahead of rain

Heavy rains expected as early as Wednesday

By PAUL VERCAMMEN AND DARRAN SIMON, CNN
John Locher/AP via CNN

Rescue workers on Tuesday combed through debris of a charred mobile home park in Northern California, searching for the possible remains of victims with urgency before the rains started.

(CNN) - Rescue workers on Tuesday combed through debris of a charred mobile home park in Northern California, searching for the possible remains of victims with urgency before the rains started.

The window to recover any remains from Ridgewood Mobile Home Park, which was destroyed by the Camp Fire, is tiny.

The heavy rains expected as early as Wednesday could drench the Camp Fire, which has burned for nearly two weeks. But the rains also may complicate the search -- packing ash, debris and dirt tightly and making it hard to find human remains.

"We're trying," said Brian Ferreira, a rescue squad officer with California Task Force 4, a Federal Emergency Management Agency urban search and rescue team made up of several Bay Area fire departments. "We're just going to comb over the debris and the material as thoroughly as we can."

It wasn't immediately clear whether the Camp Fire killed any residents from Ridgewood. At least two residents are among the hundreds of Paradise residents still unaccounted for, according to CNN affiliate KRCR.

The inferno has already killed 79 people, and officials fear the toll will rise. The blaze has destroyed nearly 13,000 homes.

The team, which was deployed by state officials, focused on the mobile home park because it was a home to senior citizens, who likely had a hard time evacuating. They zeroed in on rubble of homes where there were burned cars driveway, or the roof was burned off, according to Ferreira.

For more than two hours, they sifted debris with tools in areas where there were likely recliners and chairs. They looked in bathtubs and in the remains of bedrooms.

"Right now, the material is dry, so it gives us the ability to kind of sift through that, somewhat. And when with the rain comes, what should happen is it's going to consolidate that material and make it more dense and pack it down," said Ferreira, an Alameda County Fire Department captain.

Ferreira said: "It's going to make a difficult task even just that much more difficult."

Before the Camp Fire broke out early on November 8, Ridgewood was a 100-acre paradise in the city of Paradise. Pictures on Facebook showed neatly pruned hedges and white stones covering front yards.

A charred stone bench, bird bath and ornamental angel were among the blackened survivors of the firestorm.

A flash flood watch is in effect for Wednesday through Friday for the Camp Fire area, and 3 to 6 inches of rains are expected. About an inch of rain is expected in Paradise, a town north of Sacramento virtually destroyed by the Camp Fire.

The rain could cause ash flows, or a slurry of ash swept away by rainwater, according to Robert Baruffaldi, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service's Sacramento office. A second rain system on Thursday night will likely bring 1.5 inches of rain to Paradise and up to 4 inches in places of higher elevation, he said.

Mudflows are a real threat. The rains could also make conditions hard for firefighters battling the blaze, which has charred more than 151,000 acres.

The California team has searched multiple areas in the past week looking at every home for possible victims, according to Oakland Fire Department Battalion Chief Robert Lipp, a program coordinator for the task force.

"We're just going to do the best we can," Ferreira said of their search at the mobile home park.

Something caught their attention when several rescue workers arrived at one home with a burned car. They walked to the back, looking in piles of ash.

They radioed an anthropologist.

Minutes later, the anthropologist and several task force members stood side-by-side, hands on their knees, peering at the earth. The anthropologist shook her head. She declined to talk to a CNN reporter.

"She told us it's not human remains," Ferreira said.

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