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National

Teams Pick Through Rubble In California Looking For Wildfire Victims

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Firefighting crews are making progress in Northern California, and tens of thousands of people are returning to their homes in Sonoma County. The area was devastated, though. Forty-one people have died in the Northern California fires, more than half of them in Sonoma County. The sheriff says 88 people are still missing. Here's reporter Molly Peterson.

MOLLY PETERSON, BYLINE: Fire came fast to the Hopper Lane Apartments. Two-thirds of these buildings burned. Flames pulverized some 70-plus homes into soft ash. An all-volunteer search and rescue team from Alameda County is picking through that ash. Among its members are dogs trained by handlers to nose out human remains. Sonoma County Sergeant Dave Thompson oversees this work.

DAVE THOMPSON: I have never seen and nobody here has seen this kind of a search effort or disaster zone.

PETERSON: Neither had Hopper Lane's residents. Gaylene Carson (ph), a Mormon missionary, remembers it was 2:30 a.m. when rescuers pounded on her door to make her leave.

GAYLENE CARSON: It was just red. It was roaring and there was a (imitating fire roaring) sound. And it was - we heard the pop, pop, pop. I said to my husband, go, go, go.

PETERSON: Across the way, an orange-clad search team moves behind the yellow crime scene tape. They sift through ashes with a fine mesh. Responders usually clear cadavers first. But now, says Thompson, what this team is seeking is in pieces and scraps.

THOMPSON: Maybe a vertebrae, maybe a three-inch piece of femur bone. And it looks exactly like the rest of the rubble in the house.

PETERSON: Sonoma County detectives sorted through nearly 2,000 missing person reports. Searchers now work where finding remains seems likely because the missing person is elderly or lacks mobility, because phone calls aren't answered. The work weighs on Thompson. He says they often hope to fail.

THOMPSON: We were digging, we were halfway done and word came in that a neighbor had scooped this lady up on his way out. And when that news reached the search and rescue team, who were on their knees in the dust, in the rubble, a loud roar of clapping and happiness came up. And we moved on to the next one.

PETERSON: That happened at Hopper Lane Apartments, too. The woman missing here was found alive. Thompson and this team are moving on to more sites and hopefully more failures. For NPR News, I'm Molly Peterson in Santa Rosa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.