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Officials, Locals Struggle to Find Hundreds Missing in California Wildfire


Firefighters move debris while recovering human remains from a trailer home destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S., Nov. 17, 2018.

As the northern California Camp Fire that has killed 81 winds down, officials and locals have been struggling to find their families, friends and neighbors among the almost 900 people authorities say are still missing.

The official list of missing persons has drawn incredulous reactions from observers having trouble understanding the size of the number, or why it fluctuates by hundreds from day to day. Over the weekend, the number surpassed 1,200 before dropping back down to its current count.

Part of the reason for the dramatic shifts in the number is that the list is a working estimate, not an official headcount. It was compiled by the local sheriff's office, which combed through every 911 call since the fire started to find mentions of missing people. Sheriff Kory L. Honea said he makes new information available as soon as he has it, which means the list is useful, but not perfect.

FILE - Lane Walker of Magalia and Genevieve Brink-Capriola of Chico look at a list of people missing in the aftermath of the Camp Fire in Chico, California, Nov. 15, 2018.
FILE - Lane Walker of Magalia and Genevieve Brink-Capriola of Chico look at a list of people missing in the aftermath of the Camp Fire in Chico, California, Nov. 15, 2018.

On Tuesday alone, Honea's office said it accounted for 195 people, but also found in the backlog of voicemails another 171 people to add to the list of those still missing.

Some people who were evacuated are on the list. Other entries lack complete names, instead using descriptions like "Unk, Ex-husband," or "Unk, Cousin, Paradise."

Others fear the number is high because many on the list have died. Authorities have refrained from publicly guessing how many of the missing have perished, but some who lived through the blaze have said the number will keep rising.

"I will be shocked if it's less than — and I'm being conservative — if it's less than 150 to 200," Pastor Josh Gallagher of the Paradise Alliance Church, whose house burned down, told VOA News.

"People ran into the forest," Gallagher said of the day the fire hit Paradise, a town of 26,000. "They ran. They were just fleeing, literally fleeing for their lives. Because there's only three ways into Paradise and really only three ways out. And it was horrific gridlock. People abandoning their cars and just fleeing."

Gallagher said that while he can't account for every member of his congregation, his spirits were lifted when two members who had been listed as missing showed up for services. Sheriff Honea has said that many people on the list may not know they're on it.

The lack of reliable information has spurred the creation of a patchwork missing-persons network run by survivors, relatives and friends. Family members post pictures of their loved ones on their Facebook walls and in special groups for survivors. On the ground, long handwritten lists of names and phone numbers cover message boards at evacuation centers, kept current by word of mouth.

The fire is not expected to be fully contained until Nov. 30, but Gallagher said that evacuees, many now homeless, have begun to adjust.

"The new normal is setting in, of living out of camper trailers, putting six families in one house," Gallagher said. "I think the reality is this is going to be a long journey ahead of us. I think everyone is kind of breathing deeply."

Rain ahead

Heavy rains were due to create new problems for Northern California late Tuesday, raising the risk of mudslides in the parking lot encampments full of those left homeless by the fire.

State and federal officials warned people to be alert to the risk of sudden flows of debris down the scorched, denuded slopes of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

Eric Kurth, a meteorologist in the National Weather Service's Sacramento office, said that in addition to the rain, winds could gust up to 40 to 45 miles per hour (64 to 72 kph).

The risk of debris slides could be lessened if the 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 centimeters) of rain that was forecast were spread out over several days, he said. The rain also would extinguish some of the flames and dislodge some of the toxic smoke, Kurth said.

"We're really expecting the air quality to improve. That's the bright side for those people up there," he said.

Some information for this report came from Reuters.