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.
“We’ve been to 17 evacuation centers. We’ve called probably 12 hospitals. I mean, my whole family, all my friends looking for her,” Jessica Tunis said as she searched for her mother, who was last heard saying “I’m going to die” before the phone at her burning mobile home in Santa Rosa went dead.
Hours later Wednesday, the daughter texted a reporter to say that the remains of her mother, 69-year-old Linda Tunis, had been found in the ruins of her home.
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.
Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano put the number of people unaccounted for in the hard-hit county at 380 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.”
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.”
‘Catastrophic event’: Deadly California fires explode again
The wildfires tearing through California wine country flared anew Wednesday, growing in size and number as authorities issued new evacuation orders and announced that hundreds more homes and businesses had been lost. The death toll climbed to 21 and was expected to rise higher still.
At least 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed since the fires started Sunday, making them the third deadliest and most destructive blazes in state history.
“We have had big fires in the past. This is one of the biggest, most serious, and it’s not over,” Gov. Jerry Brown said at a news conference, alongside the state’s top emergency officials, who said that 8,000 firefighters and other personnel were battling the blazes and more resources were pouring in from Oregon, Nevada, Washington and Arizona.
Nearly three days after the flames ignited, firefighters were still unable to gain control of the blazes. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said 22 wildfires were burning, up from 17 on Tuesday.
“Make no mistake, this is a serious, critical, catastrophic event,” said Ken Pimlott, chief of the department. He said the fires have burned through a staggering 265 square miles (686 square kilometers) of urban and rural areas. The return of high winds and low humidity ignited ground that was parched from years of drought.
“We are literally looking at explosive vegetation,” he said. “It is very dynamic. These fires are changing by the minute in many areas.”
As the fires grow, officials voiced concern that separate fires would merge into even larger infernos.
“These fires are literally just burning faster than firefighters can run in some situations,” Emergency Operations Director Mark Ghilarducci said.
Flames have raced across the wine-growing region and the scenic coastal area of Mendocino farther north, leaving little more than smoldering ashes and eye-stinging smoke in their wake. Whole neighborhoods are gone, with only brick chimneys and charred appliances to mark sites that were once family homes.
Authorities ordered more evacuations for parts of Sonoma Valley after a blaze grew to 44 square miles (113 square kilometers).
Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said hundreds of people were still reported missing. But officials believe many of those people will be found because chaotic evacuations and poor communications over the past few days have made locating friends and family difficult.
The sheriff also expects the death toll to climb.
“The devastation is enormous,” he said. “We can’t even get into most areas.”
Officials in Napa County say almost half the population of Calistoga was ordered to evacuate before sunrise. Officials went through the town of 5,000 people block by block, knocking on doors to warn people to leave, Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon said.
New evacuation orders were also in place for Green Valley in Solano County.
Meanwhile in Southern California, cooler weather and moist ocean air helped firefighters gain ground against a wildfire that has scorched more than a dozen square miles.
Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Steve Concialdi said the blaze was nearly halfway surrounded and full containment was expected by Saturday, but another round of gusty winds and low humidity levels could arrive late Thursday.
More photos of the Northern California Wildfires
An onslaught of wildfires across a wide swath of Northern California broke out almost simultaneously then grew exponentially, swallowing up properties from wineries to trailer parks and tearing through both tiny rural towns and urban subdivisions.
Authorities said that at least 11 people are dead, with 100 injured, and as many as 1,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed. All three figures were expected to surge in the coming days as more information is reported.
A new blaze is threatening homes near the Oakmont area of Santa Rosa, a city already battling unforgiving wildfires.
Taken as a group, the fires are already among the deadliest in California history.
Residents who gathered at emergency shelters and grocery stores said they were shocked by the speed and ferocity of the flames. They recalled all the possessions they had left behind and were lost.
“All that good stuff, I’m never going to see it again,” said Jeff Okrepkie, who fled his neighborhood in Santa Rosa knowing it was probably the last time he would see his home of the past five years standing.
His worst fears were confirmed Monday, when a friend sent him a photo of what was left: a smoldering heap of burnt metal and debris.
Some of the largest of the 14 blazes burning over a 200-mile region were in Napa and Sonoma counties, home to dozens of wineries that attract tourists from around the world. They sent smoke as far south as San Francisco, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) away.
Sonoma County said it has received more than 100 missing-person reports as family and friends scramble to locate loved ones.
The reports have come via calls to a hotline the county set up for the missing, according to Scott Alonso, communications director for Sonoma County.
It’s possible that many or most of the missing are safe but simply can’t be reached because of the widespread loss of cell service and other communications.
Much of the damage was in Santa Rosa, a far larger and more developed city than usually finds itself at the mercy of a wildfire. The city is home to 175,000 residents, including both the wine-country wealthy and the working class.
The flames were unforgiving to both groups. Hundreds of homes of all sizes were leveled by flames so hot they melted the glass off of cars and turned aluminum wheels into liquid.
Former San Francisco Giants pitcher Noah Lowry, who now runs an outdoor sporting goods store in Santa Rosa, was forced to flee in minutes along with his wife, two daughters, and a son just over 2 weeks old.
“I can’t shake hearing people scream in terror as the flames barreled down on us,” Lowry said.
His family and another evacuating with them tried to take U.S. 101 to evacuate but found it blocked by flames, and had to take country roads to get to the family friends who took them in.
A 90-mile (145-kilometer) stretch of the highway is framed by the flames and a major concern overnight, said Brad Alexander, a spokesman for the California Office of Emergency Services.
Highway 12, which winds through the heart of wine country, was also rendered unusable by the flames.
“Sonoma and Napa counties have been hit very hard,” Alexander said.
The ferocity of the flames forced authorities to focus primarily on getting people out safely, even if it meant abandoning structures to the fire.
Firefighters rushed to a state home for the severely disabled when flames reached one side of the center’s sprawling campus in the historic Sonoma County town of Glen Ellen.
Crews got the more than 200 people from the threatened buildings, one firefighter said, as flames closed within a few dozen feet.
Watch Wildfires Consume California Hotels
Fires from ruptured gas lines dotted the smoky landscapes of blackened Santa Rosa hillsides. Fire trucks raced by smoldering roadside landscaping in search of higher priorities.
The flames were fickle in some corners of the city. One hillside home remained unscathed while a dozen surrounding it were destroyed.
Kim Hoe, a 33-year-old tech worker from Penang, Malaysia, was staying at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, which was gutted by flames. He said the power went out around 1 a.m., and he and his colleagues started packing up when someone knocked on the door and told them to run.
“We just had to run and run. It was full of smoke. We could barely breathe,” Hoe said.
The large majority of the injured were treated for smoke inhalation, according to St. Joseph Health, which operates hospitals in the Santa Rosa area. Two were in critical condition and one was in serious condition. The number of injured is expected to climb as information comes in for all the other areas affected by the firestorm consuming the state.
Flames began coming over a ridge shortly after 11 p.m. Monday in an area bordering Oakmont and Trione-Annadel State Park, Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Summer Black told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (http://bit.ly/2wLgBge). Most of the Oakmont area was evacuated earlier in the day.
October has generally been the most destructive time of year for California wildfires. What was unusual Sunday, however, was to have so many fires take off at the same time.
Other than the windy conditions that helped drive them all, there was no known connection between the fires, and no cause has been released for any of them.
But the conditions late Monday and early Tuesday were calmer than they were 24 hours earlier, bringing hopes of progress against the flames.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for the fire areas, and asked the federal government to do the same. Vice President Mike Pence, who is visiting California, said at an event near Sacramento that the federal government stands with California as it takes on the blazes, but he made no specific promises.
To the south in Orange County, more than 5,000 homes were evacuated because of a fire in the Anaheim area. The blaze had grown to nearly 12 square miles (31 sq. kilometers) as of early Tuesday.
Anaheim police Sgt. Daron Wyatt said evacuations were not likely to be lifted Tuesday.
“The problem right now is that we’re strapped for resources in the state of California,” Wyatt said. “We have eight major fires going in Northern California and this fire going as well, and potential for more fires, especially with the weather pattern.”
The fire has destroyed at least 24 structures.
The Latest on Northern California Wildfires affecting Yuba, Napa, Anaheim Hills. See photos and videos of wildfires sweeping through Northern California.