Au­thor­i­ties hope­ful wild­fire death toll lower than feared

Porterville Recorder - - NEWS - By JANIE HAR and PAUL ELIAS

SAN FRAN­CISCO — The search for peo­ple un­ac­counted for af­ter the dead­li­est U.S. wild­fire in at least a cen­tury is wind­ing down in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, with just 11 names left on a fluc­tu­at­ing list that once ap­proached 1,300 and prompted fears that hun­dreds had died in the flames.

The de­clin­ing num­ber re­leased late Mon­day came as a re­lief in the Par­adise area as it reels from the wild­fire that killed at least 85 peo­ple and de­stroyed nearly 14,000 homes.

Fam­i­lies, friends and even long-ago ac­quain­tances have been pep­per­ing so­cial me­dia with pleas for help find­ing peo­ple. Some­times they had no more than a first name to work with.

Au­thor­i­ties now say they have lo­cated more than 3,100 peo­ple who had been re­ported as un­reach­able at some point dur­ing the catas­tro­phe.

"I think that's a pretty re­mark­able num­ber at this point," Butte County Sher­iff Kory Honea said.

He also has re­vised the death toll down to 85 from 88, say­ing med­i­cal ex­am­in­ers de­ter­mined sev­eral bags of hu­man re­mains were du­pli­cates.

The As­so­ci­ated Press has been scour­ing the list of peo­ple un­ac­counted for and found du­pli­cate names, mis­spellings and peo­ple who don't ap­pear to ex­ist.

Peo­ple who were pre­vi­ously iden­ti­fied as dead or alive by fam­ily or friends have at times reap­peared on the list.

The list of names re­leased each day frus­trated those look­ing for peo­ple and baf­fled res­i­dents whose names ap­peared even though they weren't miss­ing.

Honea re­peat­edly said he re­leased the list — no mat­ter how long at times — to reach those who may not know peo­ple were look­ing for them.

He said it was never in­tended to be a de­fin­i­tive ac­count of peo­ple who were miss­ing or pos­si­bly dead.

The AP lo­cated sev­eral peo­ple, in­clud­ing a cou­ple who had de­camped from the fire zone area for a pre­vi­ously planned va­ca­tion in Hawaii.

Pa­trick Holden and Nancy Barnes fled their Par­adise home at the same time as most of their neigh­bors. They spent five ter­ri­fy­ing hours on Nov. 8 mak­ing the nor­mally 30-minute drive to nearby Chico.

The next day, they iden­ti­fied them­selves as safe through Face­book, alerted their friends and then, real­iz­ing that their home was burned to the ground, headed to Hawaii for their va­ca­tion.

Holden was stunned to see his name pop up on the list two weeks af­ter the dis­as­ter. The cou­ple ap­peared on a list re­leased Sun­day as "Pa­trick and Nancy Holton" of Par­adise.

"Ev­ery­body in the car club, the bridge club and the Par­adise New­com­ers Club knew we were OK," Holden said Mon­day from his time­share in Maui. "I don't know how we got on the list now."

His daugh­ter Amanda Lunsford said a for­mer co-worker of her fa­ther might have added him. Holden said he hasn't called the Butte County Sher­iff's Of­fice to let them know about the er­ror, be­cause they're busy.

"I think they have enough calls com­ing in," he said. "I have a lot of re­spect for the sher­iff's of­fice."

The un­cer­tainty con­tin­ues for Lita Sieben­thal, whose sis­ter re­mains on the list. She said she's spo­ken to nine dif­fer­ent de­tec­tives and been asked to re­peat in­for­ma­tion she's al­ready told other in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

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