Of the many programs and services provided to those affected by wildfires, a new recovery program in the aftermath of the Camp Fire in Paradise has been getting attention – locating and recovering human cremains from the masses of ash and debris of destroyed homes and returning them to survivors.
McCloud Community Services District General Manager Kevin Dalton and his wife, Airiel Scotti, a realtor at Coldwell Banker Mountain Gate Properties, both with archaeological experience, have joined other archaeologists volunteering their time on the weekends to sift and dig through the thousands of pounds of burnt debris and ashes to identify bone fragments of family members’ cremains that were kept in urns in their homes.
“I was moved,” Dalton said of his first experience joining the archaeologists for their fourth rotation of the project. “It’s difficult to articulate how powerful a day of volunteer work can be and how it can have a profound impact people’s lives… today was life changing. Coming to Paradise and helping people who lost their homes and possessions in the Camp Fire was an amazing experience. Memories are all that these survivors have, and I am honored to have the opportunity to use my archaeological expertise to reunite them with loved ones, and to share in the unique memories of each person. A tremendous amount of work has gone into this volunteer effort and I would like to thank the organizers, Alex and Risa at Alta Archaeological Consulting, and the good folks (and dogs) at the Institute for Canine Forensics. It’s a great humanity service that they are providing to California’s recovering communities.”
Starting last year with the October 2017 Tubbs Fire that killed 22 people and destroyed more than 2,500 homes in Santa Rosa, Alta Archaeological Consulting LLC along with the Institute for Canine Forensics volunteered their time and expertise to salvage and return the cremated remains of loved ones who had previously passed.
This humanitarian effort to give back to the families who have lost everything has brought hope for Paradise residents.
Thanks to well-trained canines who can sniff out bone fragments and other scents of human remnants where the scent is most intense, the archaeologists have a starting point in the thousands of pounds of sooty debris piled where a home once stood. Some of the dogs were used in the search and recovery of the 84 people who were killed in the Camp Fire.
Standing on what was once the foundation of her home, Allison Denofrio tells a group of archaeologists the story of her father's cremation and how she got a specially made urn for him and kept it in the bedroom on the first floor. She points to where her bed, dresser and shelves used to be to give the volunteers clad in white safety suits an idea of where to start. Her husband's family cremains were kept in a different room of their house.
Dog handler Kris Black brings her Belgian Malinois Shepherd named Anne in to sniff and identify the exact area where they were told the cremains were located. Anne gets excited at a scent and lays down next to the spot. The area is tagged with little identification flags and then the tedious job of carefully sifting through ashes begins.
What Dalton calls site formation process and the law of stratigraphy, Kris Black explains that depending on how high and where an urn is kept, such as on the second floor, near a vent or on a top shelf, and how the house burns and what other ignitable items were close by, cremains can be in a pile or be spread out over many feet. Bone fragments are of different texture and color than other ash.
As Allison Denofrio watches the dog and then the archaeologist digging, she says, “This is amazing and it’s deep and beautiful and heartwarming. The compassion that these people have is just fantastic. For us, it is emotional but it is all good. Our daughter is in New Zealand and sent us a link about these dogs that they can recover cremation remains. I want to find my husband’s siblings and bring them back to my mother-in-law. She is having a hard time with this and I think bringing them back to her will help. She is 89 and was living with us at the time of the fire and evacuation.”
This is the first time the Denofrios have returned to see what is left of their house. All that remains is a stone wall where the garden was and the brick fireplace. “To actually see this I broke down and just cried,” said Denofrio. “All our daughter’s pictures and tapes of her growing up are gone.”
As they dig and collect the bone fragments, Airiel Scotti hands over a tiny hinge that Denofrio identifies from the hand-made box that contained her father’s cremains. Also found was the identification medallion that accompanied the ashes.
Afterwards, Scotti says, “I see how we are giving these families solace. We are impacting these people that are still fragile from this tragedy and it gives them a sense of identity from the past.”
Looking down the road is the same sight over and over again; piles of ashes where houses once stood and an occasional fireplace still standing among blackened dead trees. People learn of this project by word of mouth and each team of archaeologists has a list of three to five houses they hope to get to by the end of the day.
“We hear amazing stories from the people who live here,” said archaeologist Alexander Audiego. “They tell us that this is the greatest thing to happen to them since the fire when we give the cremains back to them. It’s like losing their family members all over again for them.”
Field coordinator Lisa Lee says that during this weekend’s three-day deployment they have recovered 49 sets of cremations at 24 different houses. That does not include the animal cremains they have also recovered. “What we are doing is pretty new. In the rotations since we started here in Paradise we have done 117 homes. We do what we can.”
Alex and Risa DeGregory, owners of Alta Archaeological Consulting, LLC, say there is no funding for the project. They started a Go-Fund-Me account and have received donations. They have spent a half million dollars and figure that they still have 2,000 hours ahead of them in Paradise. “In many instances, the cremated remains of previously deceased family members are kept in urns and stored within the home. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as part of their response to a declared National Disaster, will remove debris and toxic substances within wildfire areas. For many families affected by wildfire, the thought that their loved ones could end up in a toxic waste dump adds grief to an already tragic situation. Our volunteer teams respond to wildfire disaster areas to recover human cremains. Within the past year we have conducted cremains recovery in four wildfire disaster areas. Cremains recovery fulfills an important and previously unrecognized need by providing solace to the families who’ve experience significant trauma. FEMA must adopt a policy that supports this work to avoid accidentally depositing human cremains in toxic waste dumps.”