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'I brace myself': Anxious search for the missing in California fire

  • Published at 11:02 am November 17th, 2018
California wildfire
A view of homes destroyed by the Camp Fire is seen in Paradise, California, US November 11, 2018 Reuters

California’s deadliest wildfire roared into the town of 27,000 last week

Rose Farrell was an independent-minded 99-year-old determined to live by herself in Paradise, California. A caregiver checked on her daily and she relied on a walker, but still had her car in her driveway.

Since the “Camp Fire” swept rapidly into Paradise, which sits atop a ridge 1,700 feet above a canyon cut by the Feather River, Farrell’s family has been unable to reach her.

“The hardest part is just waiting to know what happened,” said Tom Perez, 58, the husband of Farrell’s granddaughter.

California’s deadliest wildfire roared into the town of 27,000 last week, speeding seven miles in 90 minutes and leaving residents little time to flee.

Some died in their cars in a chaotic evacuation as gridlock snarled up the two exits out of town. Farrell is one of 630 people listed as missing, while the death toll has climbed to 63.

The number of those unaccounted for has fluctuated wildly and officials warn it will almost certainly change.

Over the weekend, the Butte County Sheriff’s office initially put the total of missing people at 228, many of whom were later accounted for. But as fresh reports from relatives came in, the list grew from 103 to 130 late Wednesday, jumped to 297 by Thursday morning and soared to 630 as of Thursday night.

In some cases, people may have survived but not yet notified the authorities, or relatives may not yet have reported people missing. Poor cell phone coverage after the fire has exacerbated the problem, in a mountainous region where some areas got little or no phone reception even before the fire.

“We still have reports coming in of people being missing and of people being found,” said Miranda Bowersox, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office. “The overall number will go down, but in the short term we expect to see new reports of people missing.”

Paradise was home to many retirees, like Donna Duncan-Austin, 90, who used a walker to get around. Her husband Angello Austin, 87, was more physically active and worked as a baker and a handyman, Donna’s niece Andrea Evans told Reuters by phone.

“They were deeply, deeply in love,” Evans said.

Donna was heavily involved with her church, but no one there has heard from her, Evans said.

“That’s why I brace myself,” she said.

Searching in vain

At least 90% of those on a list of the missing provided by the Butte County Sheriff’s office on Wednesday were aged over 60. Relatives say some of them are disabled or have limited mobility.

Bill Mount, 62, is one of them. His niece Jaime Daugherty said her brother urgently knocked on Mount’s door just after 6am on the day of the fire and got no response.

Mount’s house burned to the ground. One of the dozen or so coroner’s teams dispatched to the calamity from around California along with cadaver dogs, was supposed to search the site on Thursday, she said.

“I called every hospital, every shelter,” Daugherty said, and was told they had no one by that name listed there.

Forensic teams have been trying to get DNA from relatives to identify victims.

Brian Potter has sought his grandmother, Vernice Regan, 96, at shelters, local hotels and a town hall meeting in the city of Chico to the south of Paradise, for days to no avail.

She lived in Paradise for more than six decades, once ran an apple orchard with her late husband, and recently broke her hip on an overseas trip, he said.

“I’m starting to think that maybe the worst may have happened,” Potter said.

For those who survived the fire, helping locate friends and relatives has given them a sense of purpose.

Julie Walker and her husband Lane were among many who fled to the Neighborhood Community Church in Chico, which is serving as a Red Cross shelter for about 200 people.

When people call the shelter seeking the missing, church staff takes down the person’s information and post it on a board outside. Lane and Julie were scanning the list, pen in hand, hoping to cross off names of people they knew were safe.

“We could only cross off two names,” said Julie, who retired from the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. “I know quite a few of the names on that list. It’s our whole community.”

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