Northern California fire death toll rises to 79

Updated November 19, 2018 - 11:33 pm

CHICO, Calif. — Desperate families posted photos and messages on social media and at shelters in hopes of finding missing loved ones, many of them elderly, nearly two weeks after the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history. The death toll rose to 79 Monday, with about 700 people unaccounted for, according to Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea.

“I have an uncle and two cousins that I have not been able to make contact with. Paul Williams, in his 90’s, his son Paul Wayne Williams, in his 70’s, and his daughter Gayle Williams in her 60’s,” one woman wrote on Facebook. “Any info would be appreciated.”

Hundreds of searchers continued looking for human remains in the ashes in Paradise and outlying areas ravaged by the blaze Nov. 8, with the body count increasing daily.

Rain in Wednesday’s forecast added urgency to the task: While it could help knock down the flames, it could hinder the search by washing away fragmentary remains and turning ash into a thick paste.

The sheriff’s list of those unaccounted for dropped dramatically Sunday as authorities continued to locate people. Social media pages gave updates on who was dead and who was safe.

Honea has said he released the rough and incomplete list in hopes that many people would contact authorities to say they are OK. More than a dozen people are listed as “unknowns,” without first or last names. Some names are duplicated.

“We put the list out. It will fluctuate. It will go up. It will go down because this is in a state of flux,” Honea said Monday. “My view on this has been that I would prefer to get the information out and start working to find who is unaccounted for and who is not. I would put progress over perfection.”

He said his office was working with the Red Cross to account for people entering and leaving shelters. Evacuees also helped authorities narrow the list.

Robert James Miles, who lost his Paradise trailer in the blaze, was staying at a shelter in Chico, where people posted names of those they hadn’t heard from. Miles said he alerted a Red Cross worker Saturday that he recognized eight names on the board as friends and knew they were OK.

“Two of them were in the shelter,” he said with a chuckle.

Ellen Lewis, whose home in Paradise was destroyed, went to a Federal Emergency Management Agency center for help, and a FEMA representative showed her the list of the missing. She recognized the names of two people from her archery club.

“I’m going to have to contact other people to see if they’re OK,” she said. She said she would call the sheriff’s office if she confirmed they were safe.

The fire, which burned at least 234 square miles and destroyed nearly 12,000 homes, reported was two-thirds contained on Monday.

Meanwhile, Alcatraz Island, San Francisco’s cable cars, the Oakland Zoo and other San Francisco Bay-area area attractions were closed Monday because of smoke from the blaze some 180 miles away. Several San Francisco museums over the weekend offered free admission to give people something to do indoors.

California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said it is “way too early” to estimate the damage done by the wildfire. But for perspective, he said the fires that gutted 6,800 homes last year resulted in $12.6 billion in insured losses.

“It’s going to be a long and painful process,” he said.

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