SAN FRANCISCO | Desperate family members and friends checked hospitals and shelters and pleaded on social media for help finding loved ones missing amid California’s wildfires, as the number of people unaccounted for Wednesday was put at 670 in hard-hit Sonoma County alone.
How many people overall 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.
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.
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.
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, Rita and Maria and the Las Vegas massacre.
A sobbing Rachael Ingram said Wednesday she had been searching shelters and calling hospitals to try to find her friend Mike Grabow, whose home in Santa Rosa was destroyed. She also plastered social media with photos of the bearded man.
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.
She 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.”
Jessica Tunis went online in search of her mother, who was last heard from as her mobile home in Santa Rosa caught fire.
“She said, ‘I can’t get out. There’s fire at both doors. My house is on fire.’ She just kept saying ‘fire’ and coughing. She said, ‘I’m going to die,’” Tunis said. “Then the phone went dead.”
Out of respect for her mother’s privacy, she hesitated at first to put the woman’s name and photo on Facebook. But she ended up posting a picture of her mother smiling at a cafe with the caption, “Does anyone know if Journey’s End Mobile Home Park got evacuated before it burned down? I can’t find my mom, Linda Tunis.”
The owner of the trailer park and residents said they believe everyone got out before it burned to the ground. But Tunis’ mother was still unaccounted for.
“I’ve called the coroner. I’ve called every hospital. There are no Jane Does,” Tunis said. “I’ve called burn units. I’ve called everywhere.”
Her post spawned well over 100 comments, most from strangers. Some gave suggestions of places to look or call. Many just gave good wishes and prayers. Others took it as an assignment.
The only drawback, Tunis said, has been false reports and false hope.
“One person messaged me that they saw her,” she said. “They said she was looking at her phone. I knew that wasn’t her. You get your hopes up for a split second.”
For some lucky people, their loved ones turned up within hours or minutes of their Facebook inquiries.
“This is my grandma,” read a post by Mica Jennings. “We haven’t heard from her all day and have checked the shelters … with no luck.”
Then, a few hours later: “UPDATE: FOUND.”