CHICO, Calif. (AP) — Authorities searching through the blackened aftermath of California’s deadliest wildfire have released the names of about 100 people who are still missing, including many in their 80s and 90s.
As the names were made public late Tuesday, additional crews joined the search, and the statewide death toll climbed to at least 51, with 48 dead in Northern California and three fatalities in Southern California.
“We want to be able to cover as much ground as quickly as we possibly can,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said. “This is a very difficult task.”
Meanwhile, friends and relatives of the missing grew increasingly desperate. A message board at a shelter was filled with photos of the missing and pleas for any information.
“I hope you are okay,” read one hand-written note on the board filled with sheets of notebook paper. Another had a picture of a missing man: “If seen, please have him call.”
Some of the missing are not on the list, said Sol Bechtold, who is searching for his 75-year-old mother, Joanne Caddy, whose house burned down along with the rest of her neighborhood in Magalia, just north of Paradise, the town of 27,000 that was consumed by flames last week.
Bechtold said he spoke with the sheriff’s office Wednesday morning, and they confirmed they have an active missing person’s case on Caddy. But Caddy, a widow who lived alone and did not drive, was not on the list.
“The list they published is missing a lot of names,” Bechtold said. Community members have compiled their own list.
Greg Gibson was one of the people searching the message board Tuesday, hoping to find information about his neighbors. They’ve been reported missing, but he does not know if they tried to escape or hesitated a few minutes too long before fleeing Paradise, where about 7,700 homes were destroyed.
“It happened so fast. It would have been such an easy decision to stay, but it was the wrong choice,” Gibson said from the Neighborhood Church in Chico, California, which was serving as a shelter for some of the more than 1,000 evacuees.
Inside the church, evacuee Harold Taylor chatted with newfound friends. The 72-year-old Vietnam veteran, who walks with a cane, said he received a call Thursday morning to evacuate immediately. He saw the flames leaping up behind his house, left with the clothes on his back and barely made it out alive.
Along the way, he tried to convince his neighbor to get in his car and evacuate with him, but the neighbor declined. He doesn’t know what happened to his friend.
“We didn’t have 10 minutes to get out of there,” he said. “It was already in flames downtown, all the local restaurants and stuff,” he said.
The search for the dead was drawing on portable devices that can identify someone’s genetic material in a couple of hours, rather than days or weeks.
“In many circumstances, without rapid DNA technology, it’s just such a lengthy process,” said Frank DePaolo, a deputy commissioner of the New York City medical examiners’ office, which has been at the forefront of the science of identifying human remains since 9/11.
Before the Paradise tragedy, the deadliest single fire on record in California was a 1933 blaze in Griffith Park in Los Angeles that killed 29.
At the other end of the state, firefighters made progress against a massive blaze that has killed two people in star-studded Malibu and destroyed well over 400 structures in Southern California.
The flames roared to life again in a mountainous wilderness area Tuesday, sending up a huge plume of smoke near the community of Lake Sherwood. Still, firefighters made gains.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke canceled a trip to Asia and planned to visit the fire zones Wednesday and Thursday.
The cause of the fires remained under investigation, but they broke out around the time and place that two utilities reported equipment trouble. Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, who takes office in January, sidestepped questions about what action should be taken against utilities if their power lines are found to be responsible.
People who lost homes in the Northern California blaze sued Pacific Gas & Electric Co. on Tuesday, accusing the utility of negligence and blaming it for the fire. An email to PG&E was not immediately returned.
Linda Rawlings was on a daylong fishing trip with her husband and 85-year-old father when the fire broke out.
Her next-door neighbors opened the back gate so her three dogs could escape before they fled the flames, and the dogs were picked up several days later waiting patiently in the charred remains of their home, she said.
After days of uncertainty, Rawlings learned Tuesday morning that her “Smurf blue” home in Magalia burned to the ground.
She sat looking shell-shocked on the curb outside a hotel in Corning.
“Before, you always have hope,” she said. “You don’t want to give up. But now we know.”