One man's tireless search for his adopted brother in California fires

2018-11-17 07:43

His mouth agape and his hands on his head in disbelief, Jhonathan Clark walks through the charred rubble that was once his home in the California town of Paradise, virtually destroyed by wildfires.

It was the first time that Clark was able to survey the devastation himself - the Camp Fire erupted a week ago, torching a wide swathe of the northern part of the state and leaving at least 63 people dead.

More than 600 are still unaccounted for. Clark's brother Maurice, his sister-in-law and their six-year-old son are in that group.

"This isn't like Maurice just disappearing off the face of the earth and not letting anyone know," Clark, who is 19, told AFP.

Relatives of those classified as missing have been asked to provide DNA samples to help with identifying the remains recovered, which are burnt beyond recognition.

But Clark cannot even do that. He and Maurice are adopted.

In the ashes of the home where they grew up, Clark was hoping to find a sign - anything that would indicate that his brother was alive.

"We'll do whatever we can to find him dead or alive because that's what Clarks do - we look after each other," he said, while admitting: "My dad is starting to lose hope a little bit."

Clark and his girlfriend have a four-month-old daughter. They are lucky to be alive. The flames effectively wiped Paradise, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, off the map.

It is believed the victims were unable to flee the fast-moving blaze or were trapped in their cars as they attempted to escape the inferno.

Getting back on his feet

Maurice - who is tall, black and in his early 20s - was just starting to get his life back on track, his brother recounts.

Moe, as his friends and family call him, had done time in prison - more than once - and was living in homeless shelters before coming home to Paradise, where he moved back in with his family.

He started working for his brother, who has a job in landscaping - tree removal and weed clearing.

"He showed me how to work like a man," Clark says of his brother, fighting to hold back tears, though his reddened eyes gave him away.

The last time the siblings spoke was a week before the fire, but Clark says neighbours have told him that they saw Maurice on the day the blaze erupted in a shop in one of the hardest-hit areas.

Others said they saw Maurice afterwards in Yuba, a neighbouring city, but that information turned out to be false.

Despite the emotional ups and downs, and the fading likelihood of good news, Clark is trying not to lose hope.

"I'm still going to keep on looking and hope for the best," he says. "I just hate to think that he's one of the fatalities."

But so far, the silence is deafening.

'Cowboy without a horse'

The first thing that Clark found on the family property was his dead horse Jadis, which he was unable to save when he and his relatives evacuated.

"Hope you went quick. That's all I can say. I hope you went quick," says Clark of the mare. He now calls himself a "cowboy without a horse".

The remains of the home sketch a faint outline of a happier past: The charred ruins of the stove and the washer/dryer. The iron frame of his parents' bed and a desk are still standing.

"My god, there are no words," he said. "It's hard to see everything that you've grown up around gone in a matter of just hours. The whole entire town got swept through in no time at all."

Clark uses his cowboy boot to break a window pane: it was one of the only things left of his bedroom. Looking at a pile of ashes, he says he believes they were his books. His mother home-schooled him and his brother.

Some tools are strewn on the ground of what was a garage. There is also a metal skeleton of a tractor -- the family had bought it just three days before the blaze.

A burned-out car also remains - it's a 1975 Mustang that Clark's father, a 74-year-old retired mechanic, always planned to restore. It was one of those projects that was on the to-do list for years. Now, it's too late.

After working with trees for a few years, Clark knew enough to try to prepare the family home for the flames, but the pine trees went up quickly.

"With the fire this hot and that came through this quick, there was just no chance," he said.

On the day of the fire, he warned his girlfriend's family, who lived next door, and other neighbours to flee as soon as possible.

But he knows that many stayed behind and died. And he knows that his brother may be one of those who did not make it out.

Clark was evacuated to nearby Chico.

He says he will one day rebuild his home and help his neighbours, but for now, his only concern is getting some news about his loved ones - and offering Jadis a final burial. He uses a tarp from a boat to cover the mare.

"She was a good horse - stubborn, but good," he said.

Read more on:    us  |  animals  |  fires
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