The last six unidentified Camp Fire victims have stumped law enforcement and scientists

Wally Sipher holds a photograph of his sister, Judy, at the site of her Paradise apartment off Clark Road.

Wally Sipher holds a photograph of his sister, Judy, at the site of her Paradise apartment off Clark Road.

Photo by Andre Byik

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As the Camp Fire barreled toward the town of Paradise, Wally Sipher called his sister, Judy, from his home in nearby Chico. A massive plume of smoke could be seen from the valley floor. Sipher told her the situation looked scary and she ought to get out. She didn’t seem worried.

That was the last time they spoke.

Judy, 68, lived in an apartment surrounded by tall pines at Paradise Community Village off Clark Road. It was an attractive low-income housing complex, Sipher recalled, and she was fortunate to have landed a spot there. Human remains, Sipher said, were found in or near the bathroom of Judy’s bottom-floor apartment, which was leveled by the blaze. He believes she likely sought shelter there in her final moments.

It has been nearly nine months since the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire ripped through eastern Butte County—charring Paradise, Magalia and the smaller communities of Butte Creek Canyon and Concow and killing at least 85 people. But closure remains elusive for Sipher. Judy, he said, has yet to be confirmed dead by the Butte County Sheriff’s Office. Her case is believed to be among the six whose remains have not been positively identified.

What’s complicated the identification process in some cases, authorities tell CN&R, is that the remains are so badly degraded from the intensity of the fire that DNA analysis is difficult to conduct. In others, authorities have few or no clues as to who the deceased could be.

Kory Honea, sheriff and coroner for Butte County, received grim news in the evening hours of Nov. 8, 2018. The Camp Fire had been burning for less than a day, but the scope of the immediate destruction was beginning to take shape. Honea told CN&R he was at a command post set up at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico when sheriff’s officials learned multiple people had been found dead in cars on Edgewood Lane in south Paradise. They’d died trying to escape the inferno and were among the first human remains recovered.

In conversations Honea had that day with state and federal officials, he was told to expect more deaths. Many more, maybe between 300 and 400.

In the following days and weeks, officials mounted an unprecedented search and recovery operation. They scoured a fire zone that measured about 240 square miles—a land area about as expansive as the city of Chicago—and included about 18,000 places, such as burned homes, businesses, outbuildings and other areas where people may have sought refuge from the flames. An estimated 10,000 people contributed to the search, including firefighters, coroner’s investigators, forensic anthropologists, crime analysts, morgue workers and DNA specialists.

“What we ended up with was, in my view, probably one of the most complex mass casualty events that anyone has ever had to deal with,” the sheriff said.

In other mass-casualty events in which there could be a similar or greater number of deaths, such as a commercial plane crash or terrorist attack, the search area typically is limited. Searchers also may have a better understanding of whom they are looking for, taking into account such things as passenger manifests and corporate rosters. And the remains would be expected to be more intact than what was left behind in the Camp Fire.

To date, two people remain on the official Camp Fire missing persons list—Wendy Carroll-Krug and Sara Martinez-Fabila. Nevertheless, the sheriff said his office has remained open to the possibility that more remains could be found in the burn zone.

The last person to be positively identified was Shirley Haley of Paradise. The Sheriff’s Office released her name on July 10. She was 67. Haley lived with her sister, Barbara Carlson, 71, who also was killed in the blaze, in a mobile home on Heavenly Place. Carlson was positively identified in December.

Carlson’s granddaughter, Maggie Masterson, 23, of Magalia, told CN&R that not having official confirmation about Haley’s death until July was surreal. “The not knowing is what really hurts,” Masterson said.

Sipher said he’d like to receive the remains of his sister and hold a memorial service with his family in Idaho, which had been put off but was scheduled for late July.

“We’re still going to do it with or without remains, I guess,” he said at the time. “Just a little remembrance.”