Hun­dreds miss­ing amid fires

Loved ones go on­line to lo­cate Cal­i­for­nia wild­fire vic­tims

The Recorder & Times (Brockville) - - WORLD NEWS - BRIAN SKOLOFF and JANIE HAR

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Friends and rel­a­tives des­per­ately checked hos­pi­tals and shel­ters and pleaded on so­cial me­dia for help find­ing loved ones miss­ing amid Cal­i­for­nia’s wild­fires, with hun­dreds of peo­ple un­ac­counted for Wed­nes­day.

Robert Tu­nis picked through the de­bris where his mother’s house once stood at Jour­ney ’s End mo­bile home park in Santa Rosa, search­ing for clues to what hap­pened to her. Linda Tu­nis, 69, talked to her daugh­ter from her burn­ing home on Mon­day, say­ing “I’m go­ing to die” be­fore the phone went dead.

“We’ve been to 17 evac­u­a­tion cen­tres. We’ve called prob­a­bly 12 hos­pi­tals. I mean, my whole fam­ily, all my friends look­ing for her,” daugh­ter Jes­sica Tu­nis said. “I hope some­one got her in time and she can’t tell peo­ple who she is. Please just help me. If you’ve seen her, please call me.”

As of Wed­nes­day, 22 wild­fires were burn­ing in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, up from 17 the day be­fore. The blazes killed at least 21 peo­ple and de­stroyed an es­ti­mated 3,500 homes and busi­nesses, many of them in Cal­i­for­nia wine coun­try.

How many peo­ple 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.

With many fires still rag­ing out of con­trol, au­thor­i­ties said lo­cat­ing 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, who put the num­ber of peo­ple un­ac­counted for in the hard-hit county at 380.

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.” It is an in­creas­ingly fa­mil­iar prac­tice that was seen after hur­ri­canes Har­vey, Irma and Maria and the Las Ve­gas mas­sacre.

A sob­bing Rachael In­gram searched shel­ters and called hos­pi­tals to try to find her friend Mike Grabow, whose home in Santa Rosa was de­stroyed. She plas­tered so­cial me­dia with pho­tos of the bearded man as she drove up and down High­way 101 in her pickup.

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.

In­gram 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.”

Frances Dinkel­spiel, a jour­nal­ist in Berke­ley, turned to so­cial me­dia for help find­ing her step­brother Jim Con­ley after tweet­ing au­thor­i­ties and get­ting lit­tle help. But it was a round of tele­phone calls ul­ti­mately that led her to him.

A Santa Rosa hospi­tal ini­tially said it had no record of him, but when the fam­ily tried again, it was told he had been trans­ferred else­where with se­ri­ous burns. It was a frus­trat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, Dinkel­spiel said, but “I’m glad he’s in a hospi­tal and isn’t ly­ing in­jured on the side of the road.”

JEFF CHIU/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Phil Rush walks through the burnt re­mains at the site of his home de­stroyed by fires in Santa Rosa, Calif., Wed­nes­day. Wild­fires tear­ing through Cal­i­for­nia’s wine coun­try con­tin­ued to ex­pand Wed­nes­day, de­stroy­ing hun­dreds more homes and struc­tures and prompt­ing new evac­u­a­tion or­ders.

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