Total destruction’: Volunteers sift through ashes of Northern California wildfire

More than one of the searchers told of the strange duality in the work—wanting to be thorough and find what is to be found, but dreading what that might be.At one home, crew member Adena Sherburn suddenly startled. A small hand reached up through the ash. A step closer and she relaxed. The hand belonged to a porcelain doll. Later, she and another team member found a bathtub—often a refuge for victims in a fire. Filled with ashes and debris, the pair dug through the detritus, Sherburn repeating to herself, “Please let it be clear, please let it be clear.” It was.Sherburn, a 50-year-old massage therapist, only completed her training to work with El Dorado’s search and rescue team three weeks ago. For two days this week she was in a place she could not have imagined. But she felt like she was where she needed to be.“I’ve got feet, I’ve got eyes. So this is something I can do to help,” Sherburn said. “I would rather be here doing this than anywhere else right now.”For most of those waiting, many of them in Chico and other communities in the valley below, the wait has seemed interminable.Marque Henson and her husband had made the mad run down Paradise’s main drag, the Skyway, on the morning of Nov. 8. Flames burned high on either side. A tall tree fell, narrowly missing their car.Wracked with fear, Henson also had a sick feeling because she didn’t have time to get miles across town to the home where her aunt, Evelyn Cline, lived alone. Aunt Evie had always been there for her, coming to support her even as Henson’s mother hopscotched across the country, Henson feeling rootless.A neighbor woman was paid to look after Aunt Evie, 83. But on the morning of the calamity, Henson realized a list with all her phone contacts had been left behind. She and a cousin who has been Evie’s primary overseer have no way to reach the caretaker.Henson’s son took to social media. “Has anyone seen my aunt Evie Cline?” Paul Henson pleaded on Twitter, above a picture of Evie, a pale woman wearing a pale purple sweatshirt embroidered with flowers.Her home on Roberts Lane in Paradise is now just a shell. Atop a wood-burning stove, there is a ceramic figure of a mother owl and two chicks. Cline loved owls, and such knick-knacks dotted her home.“My aunt is my last living relative, besides my children,” said Marque Henson, her voice clutching with emotion. “It’s hard to think that she won’t be there to come home for Christmas or Easter, or Thanksgiving.”Tammie Konicki knows a little more about the fate of her mother, but still not enough. Sheila Santos, 54, lived at Holly Hills Mobile Estates, where not a single home out of dozens remains.Search and rescue teams work amid a bleak landscape of charred home remains in Paradise, California on Friday. Brock Stoneham / World NewsThere is a marker at what used to be her unit, number 34, that Konicki said she has learned was left by the coroner’s office, which she said found her mother’s roommate. That was Vinnie Carota, 65, Konicki said.World News has not verified Konicki’s account, and the Butte County coroner’s office has not identified the remains found outside the mobile home. A marker there says only “Doe C.”Greg Carota told the San Francisco Chronicle that he had pleaded with his brother to get out the morning of Nov. 8, but he couldn’t get Vinnie to budge. He was stubborn and said he would ride it out.Konicki lives near Cleveland, but she jumped in her car as soon as she heard about the danger around her mom’s home. She drove straight through—sleeping for only a handful of hours in a 55-hour journey to Chico. In the days since, she has papered every shelter, hospital and relief center with flyers, asking for any sign of Santos.She received one call from someone who thought they recognized the missing woman from the picture on the flyer. But by the time Konicki arrived, there was no sign of her mother.Her mother had fought through addiction to become a home health care worker, Konicki said, and she has some tiny hope maybe she will be a survivor again.“I don’t want to sit here for weeks and weeks. I want to know,” said Konicki, 34, an Army veteran. “I am not going anywhere until I find my mom.”Somerby, who served two tours with the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, had left the Sherwood Forest Mobile Estates before 7 a.m. the day of the fire for a group support meeting at the Veteran’s Administration in Chico, 25 minutes away. Before he left, the TV weatherman had said there might be high winds that day. But no word of fire.He arrived in Chico to find the meeting canceled and no safe way to get home. He spent two nights in the cab of his Nissan pickup truck in the parking lot of a Raley’s supermarket. Then he moved to the shelter in the auditorium of the Neighborhood Church, operated by the Red Cross.Randy Somerby, 65, has been staying at a Red Cross shelter since fire swept through his town of Paradise, California. [November 17, 2018 – Chico, California]Brock StonehamHe doesn’t own a cell phone, but several times a day he had the Red Cross and a veteran’s group check websites to see if his brother, his 85-year-old mother or his 91-year-old stepfather had checked in. They hadn’t.On Saturday, an World News reporter was able to reach the corporate office of the senior living facility where Somerby’s parents lived. A spokesman said the entire complex, including Lorraine Somerby’s cottage, had been safely evacuated the morning of the fire.The couple ended up, after a few stops earlier in the week, at another senior home the company owns in suburban Sacramento. When told that his parents have been safe, Randy exhaled deeply. “Oh God. Thank God.”He soon learned his brother had made it out, too, and was with the parents. Brother Ken Somerby, 56, said the whole family will reunite for Thanksgiving, if not before, probably in Sacramento.“Yes, it’s a happy ending, but not for everyone. There are a lot of people who didn’t make it out,” Ken Somerby said.With his mobile home burned to the ground and the world he knew gone, it was hard to think about the future. But the younger Somerby brother was certain of one thing. He has had enough of fires and danger.“We will go back and salvage what we can,” he said, “But I don’t care if they make it the most beautiful place in the world, we will never live in Paradise again.”James Rainey is a reporter for World News, based in Los Angeles.Elizabeth Chuck contributed.MORE FROM news