Amid the smoking rubble, barely breathable air, and bursting encampments of desperate survivors, the most unnerving aspect of California’s historic wildfires might be the massive list of the missing.
Raging flames on both ends of the state have killed 74 people so far, and officials estimate as many as 1,011 were still unaccounted for late Saturday.
“This is a dynamic list,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea cautioned, noting the list was compiled from “raw data” including a review of 911 calls from the first night of the fires, and could include duplications, or the names of those who do not realize they’ve been reported missing.
The sheriff refused to guess whether the list of the missing would ultimately swell the number of dead.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for any of us to sit and speculate about what the future holds,” he said.
“We are still receiving calls. We’re still reviewing emails,” Honea said. “This is a massive undertaking. We have hundreds and hundreds of people working on this.”
After 10 days, Northern California’s Camp Fire, which had killed 71 people, was only 55 percent contained in the face of a brutal forecast for late Saturday into Sunday: strong winds, gusts of up to 40 miles per hour, low humidity, and rains still days away.
Just 58 of the dead have been identified, the Chico Enterprise-Record reported. Search teams and cadaver dogs hunted for remains in leveled neighborhoods.
On Thursday Sol Bechtold went to the Butte County Sheriff with DNA samples he hoped would help find his mom, Caddy.
As he drove home to Pleasonton, Calif., the coroner called: the 75-year-old’s body was found in her home, which had been burned to its concrete foundation.
“It’s hard to realize your mother is gone,” Bechtold said. “It’s been a pretty emotional 24 hours. Lots of tears.”
Another mother, Donna Price, was found alive, tracked down at one of the area’s packed shelters.
Yuba and Butte County sheriff deputies search a destroyed home for a reported victim of the Camp Fire.
More than 1,000 missing as California wildfire rages on
“It was so crazy, I started crying in front of everybody,” Price’s daughter, Monica Whipple, said as she heard the news.
Evacuees like Price huddled together in packed shelters, some of which suffered outbreaks of norovirus, and tent camps, including nearly 1,000 people in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Chico, where the acrid air gave an eerie, overcast appearance and many residents wore masks.
Many of the Wal-Mart refugees were packing their belongings Saturday: they’d been told they had to leave by Sunday, according to a report.
As firefighters fought flames, officials wrangled missing lists and evacuees wondered what would come next, criticism mounted of evacuation plans which failed to protect residents of Paradise, a town of 27,000 that has been virtually wiped out.
The speed of the Camp Fire undermined evacuation plans created after a large blaze in 2008, local officials said.
“The lessons we had learned in the past kind of went out of the window due to the sheer speed and intensity of this fire,” Paradise Emergency Operations Coordinator Jim Broshears said.
Area roads were widened, paved and straightened after the 2008 fire to make it easier for residents to get out, but the Camp Fire burned through local escape routes, Broshears said, adding, “we couldn’t flow huge amounts of traffic down an available highway because there was no available highway.”
Adding to the chaos was an inadequate alert system which delivered just 60 percent of its emergency notifications to locals as the flames scorched power lines and cell towers and overwhelmed systems were swamped with calls, officials said.