Woman who searched for days learns mother killed in wild­fire

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SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) — A fran­tic Jes­sica Tu­nis had been call­ing hos­pi­tals and post­ing on so­cial me­dia when her fam­ily’s search ended up back at the charred ru­ins of her mother’s Santa Rosa house on Wed­nes­day, look­ing for clues in the de­bris as to where she might be.

Linda Tu­nis had last called Jes­sica from her burn­ing house at Jour­ney’s End mo­bile home park early Mon­day, say­ing “I’m go­ing to die” be­fore the phone went dead. Her home was de­stroyed in wild­fires that swept North­ern California’s wine coun­try.

“She’s spunky, she’s sweet, she loves bingo and she loves the beach, she loves her fam­ily,” said Jes­sica Tu­nis, cry­ing. “Please help me find her. I need her back. I don’t want to lose my mom.”

Hours later Tu­nis texted an AP re­porter to say that her brother, Robert, had found her mother’s re­mains among the de­bris. Au­thor­i­ties put the re­mains of the 69-year-old woman in a small white plas­tic bag and strapped it to a gur­ney be­fore tak­ing it away.

Hun­dreds of peo­ple re­mained un­ac­counted for Wed­nes­day as friends and rel­a­tives des­per­ately checked hos­pi­tals and shel­ters and pleaded on so­cial me­dia for help find­ing loved ones miss­ing amid California’s wild­fires.

As of Wed­nes­day, 22 wild­fires were burn­ing in North­ern California, up from 17 the day be­fore. The blazes killed about two dozen peo­ple and de­stroyed an es­ti­mated 3,500 homes and busi­nesses, many of them in California’s 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 top pri­or­ity.

Sonoma County Sher­iff Robert Gior­dano put the num­ber of peo­ple un­ac­counted for in the hard-hit county at 285 and said of­fi­cers were start­ing limited searches in the “cold zones” they could reach.

“We can only get so many places and we have only so many peo­ple to work on so many things,” he said. “When you are work­ing on evac­u­a­tions, those are our first pri­or­ity in re­sources.”

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.”

Grabow’s name was among dozens writ­ten on a dry erase board at the Fin­ley Com­mu­nity Cen­ter in Santa Rosa, which the Red Cross had turned into an evac­u­a­tion cen­ter with dor­mi­to­ries, cold show­ers and three meals a day. Dozens of evac­uees hung about, wait­ing for word for when they could re­turn to their homes.

Deb­bie Short, an evac­uee stay­ing at the Fin­ley Cen­ter, was a good ex­am­ple of a per­son listed as miss­ing who was not. She was walk­ing past the dry erase board when she no­ticed her name on the board, likely be­cause a friend had been look­ing for her.

A Red Cross vol­un­teer erased her name off the board.

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 that ul­ti­mately 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.”

-o0oThis story has been cor­rected to show that peo­ple used so­cial me­dia to search for miss­ing after Hur­ri­cane Irma, not Rita.

-o0oAs­so­ci­ated Press writer Janie Har con­trib­uted from San Fran­cisco. AP

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