Woman who searched for days learns that her mother was killed in wildfire
SANTA ROSA (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 at least 23 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.