Desperate families posted photos and messages on social media and at shelters in hopes of finding missing loved ones, many of them elderly, nearly two weeks after the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history. The death toll stood at 77 on Monday, with about 1,000 people unaccounted for.
“I have an uncle and two cousins that I have not been able to make contact with. Paul Williams, in his 90’s, his son Paul Wayne Williams, in his 70’s, and his daughter Gayle Williams in her 60’s,” one woman wrote on Facebook. “Any info would be appreciated.”
Hundreds of searchers continued looking for human remains in the ashes in Paradise and outlying areas ravaged by the blaze on Nov. 8, with the body count increasing daily.
Rain in Wednesday’s forecast added urgency to the task: While it could help firefighters knock down the flames, it could hinder the search by washing away fragmentary remains and turning ash into a thick paste.
Authorities located hundreds of missing people and the list of unaccounted for dropped dramatically Sunday from nearly 1,300 to 1,000. Social media pages gave updates on who was discovered dead and who was found safe.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea has said he put out the rough and incomplete list in hopes that many people would contact authorities to say they are OK. More than a dozen people are listed as “unknowns,” without first or last names.
“The data we’re putting out is raw, but my thought on that was it’s better to work toward progress than achieve perfection before we start giving that information out,” he told ABC on Sunday.
Robert James Miles, 58, lost the trailer he lived in in Paradise in the fire. He brought his 27-year-old son, Charlie, to a Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster center to meet with a mental health counselor.
“His main concern was getting Mama out, and it rattled him to the roots,” he said.
At the shelter Miles was staying in in Chico, people posted names of those they hadn’t heard from. Miles said he alerted a Red Cross worker on Saturday that he recognized eight names on the board as friends and knew they were OK.
“Two of them were in the shelter,” he said with a chuckle.
Ellen Lewis, a 72-year-old woman who lost her home in Paradise, went to the FEMA center for help, and a FEMA representative showed her the list of the missing while she was there. She recognized two people from her archery club.
“I’m going to have to contact other people to see if they’re OK,” she said. She said she would call the sheriff’s office if she confirmed they were safe.
The fire, which burned at least 234 square miles and destroyed nearly 12,000 homes, reportedly was two-thirds contained on Monday.