SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Desperate family members and friends pleaded on social media for help finding loved ones missing amid California’s wildfires.
The number of people unaccounted for early Wednesday was put at 670 in hard-hit Sonoma County alone.
How many people overall were missing was unclear, and officials said the lists could include duplicated names and people who are safe but haven’t told anyone, whether because of the general confusion or because cellphone service is out across wide areas.
“We get calls and people searching for lost folks and they’re not lost, they’re just staying with somebody and we don’t know where it is,” said Napa County Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht.
As of Wednesday, 22 wildfires were burning in Northern California, up from 17 the day before. The blazes were blamed for at least 17 deaths and the loss of at least 3,500 homes and businesses, many of them in California wine country.
With many fires still raging out of control, authorities said finding the missing was not their priority.
“We are not switching operations to anything but lifesaving right now. It’s all about lifesaving and evacuations,” said Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano.
As a result, many people turned to social media, posting pleas such as “Looking for my Grandpa Robert,” ″We are looking for our mother Norma” or “I can’t find my mom.”
A sobbing Rachael Ingram said Wednesday she had been searching shelters and calling hospitals to try to find her friend Mike Grabow, whose home in Santa Rosa was destroyed. She also plastered social media with photos of the bearded man.
Privacy rules, she said, prevented shelters from releasing information.
“You can only really leave notes and just try and send essentially a message in a bottle,” she said.
She said she hopes Grabow is simply without a phone or cell service.
“I’ve heard stories of people being relocated to San Francisco and Oakland. I’m hoping for something like that,” she said. “We’re hearing the worst and expecting the best.”
The faces of the missing are all over social media: Janet Leonard and her son, Tish Ward from Glen Ellen and Jeff Baummunk’s mom, Norma Zarr.
“For the last few days, I’ve just been pulling my hair out, trying to find her,” said Baummunk.
His concern is one shared by many others in Sonoma County. The number of missing people jumped overnight.
However there was some good news early Wednesday evening. The Sheriff of Sonoma County downgraded the number of missing persons being sought. He said the department initially were looking for about 600, which was down from an earlier number.
As of about 5:15 p.m., 315 of those missing have been found. Authorities are still looking for 285 people.
“She’s a tough, tough lady, but has lots of medical issues,” said Baummunk. “Broken hip, broken back. She needs some serious attention.”
71-year-old Daniel Southard lived in her same neighborhood. He is also missing as of Wednesday night.
40-year-old Mike Grabow was last heard from Sunday night from his home off Mark West Springs Road.
Jim and Donna Connell also live in that area. Their neighborhood was left in smoldering ruins by the fire Sunday.
Jessica Tunis went online in search of her mother, employing an increasingly familiar ritual that was seen after Hurricanes Harvey, Rita and Maria and the Las Vegas massacre.
Tunis was talking by phone with her mother as the older woman’s mobile home in Santa Rosa caught fire.
“She said, ‘I can’t get out. There’s fire at both doors. My house is on fire.’ She just kept saying ‘fire’ and coughing. She said, ‘I’m going to die,’” Tunis said. “Then the phone went dead.”
Out of respect for her mother’s privacy, she hesitated at first to put the woman’s name and photo on Facebook. But she ended up posting a picture of her mother smiling at a cafe with the caption, “Does anyone know if Journey’s End Mobile Home Park got evacuated before it burned down? I can’t find my mom, Linda Tunis.”
The owner of the trailer park and residents said they believe everyone got out before it burned to the ground. But Tunis’ mother was still unaccounted for.
“I’ve called the coroner. I’ve called every hospital. There are no Jane Does,” Tunis said. “I’ve called burn units. I’ve called everywhere.”
Her post spawned well over 100 comments, most from strangers. Some gave suggestions of places to look or call. Many just gave good wishes and prayers. Others took it as an assignment.
The only drawback, Tunis said, has been false reports and false hope.
“One person messaged me that they saw her,” she said. “They said she was looking at her phone. I knew that wasn’t her. You get your hopes up for a split second.”
Sadly, Tunis later posted the sad news that her mother’s body had been found at the Santa Rosa mobile home park where she lived.
“My mother’s remains have been found at her home at Journey’s End. May she rest in peace, my sweet Momma,” Jessica B. Tunis posted on Facebook Wednesday above a photo of her mother in the Facebook group “Santa Rosa Firestorm Update.”
For some lucky people, their loved ones turned up within hours or minutes of their Facebook inquiries.
“This is my grandma,” read a post by Mica Jennings. “We haven’t heard from her all day and have checked the shelters … with no luck.”
Then, a few hours later: “UPDATE: FOUND.”
A team of 30 deputies is in charge of tracking down those still unaccounted for and the emergency operations center is fielding the public’s calls about the missing. But as the fires continue to rage with little to no containment, finding those loved ones is not an easy task…
“When the shelter first opened, some people were reluctant to give their names and probably just thought they were coming for a few minutes,” said Kathleen Hawing, the principal shelter manager at Sonoma Valley High.
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department asks that anyone who manages to find a loved one who had gone missing to please get in touch so the names of those who are found can be taken of their list.
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