Wildfire gives rise to family-reuniting ‘Angels of Paradise’

SAN FRANCISCO — They have become known as the Angels of Paradise. But there is nothing ethereal about them.

They are online sleuths who know how to find people, and they have been putting their skills to use in the aftermath of California’s catastrophic wildfire.

In the dark days that followed the Nov. 8 inferno, the deadliest in California history, social media filled with posts from people trying to contact loved ones from the Paradise area.

Panic spread as the magnitude of destruction came into focus: At least 85 dead. Nearly 14,000 homes destroyed. From across the U.S., people posted names of aunts, uncles, foster parents, distant relatives and long-lost friends or acquaintances and asked, “Does anyone know if they are safe?”

Nancy Collins knew she could help. A mother of two and a 911 dispatcher, Collins volunteers as a “search angel,” someone who helps adoptees find their biological parents. She knows her way around public records and how to track people down.

She offered her services to the administrator of a newly created Facebook page, “Camp Fire Missing Persons, Paradise CA,” after noticing panicked posts were piling up.

“I said, ‘I have a bunch of genealogy friends, and we can help,” said Collins, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and formed a team of eight “angels” from around the country and one in Canada, all of whom volunteer with a group called Search Squad . “The rest was history.”

Working on laptops from their living room sofas, home offices and kitchen counters, they communicated in online chat groups and divvied up hundreds of posts. They used public databases to find property deeds, court records and bankruptcy filings, and logged onto people-finding sites like Ancestry.com, BeenVerified.com, the online White Pages and others. They looked for cellphone numbers and email addresses and names of friends, relatives, neighbors and associates who might have clues.

In the four weeks since the fire started, the search angels have connected nearly 250 people with the relatives and friends they were searching for. They are one of several missing persons groups that sprung up on Facebook with the intention of helping strangers in a time of need, harnessing the power of social media and dogged investigative work.

“I reached out to the angels, and they really are angels,” said Delisa Gaeta, 55, who was concerned about her foster father, whom she hadn’t seen in years. “I threw a lifeline out there, and they grabbed hold of it and reeled it in. They just made it happen.”

At first, Gaeta didn’t know if her foster father, Dale Wingett, had made it out of his Paradise home alive. Authorities had no information on him, and after two weeks of trying to contact him, she was losing hope. Then she saw his picture in a local newspaper at a Thanksgiving dinner for survivors in the Northern California city of Redding. Gaeta desperately wanted to speak to Wingett and see if he needed help.

“It became a group project,” said Dawn Kosmakos, a search angel who lives in Martinez, in the San Francisco Bay Area. “It was like, ‘OK, girls. Let’s find him!”

They alerted the sheriff’s office, did online searches and tried calling family and a property management company, Collins said. They found out Wingett had left Redding and was heading about 80 miles south, to the city of Willows.

“We called every hotel in Willows and said, ‘If he checks in, can you give him this message?’” said Collins, and that’s how they found him. Wingett got the message, called them back, got Gaeta’s number and called her. They have since emailed and spoken several times.

For Wingett, the connection brought happiness at a time of great loss.

“We have had really moving talks,” said Wingett, contacted by phone at a hotel in Sutter Creek. “She told me that even though I was her foster father, to her I was her father. That hit me pretty strongly.”

Gaeta says she has peace of mind after weeks of sleepless nights.

“I am so grateful to the work of these women,” said Gaeta, who lives in the Bay Area city of Santa Clara. “They gave me the best Christmas gift.”

Diana Sauer, 39, feels a similar sense of gratitude and wonder for the work of the angels, who use methods for finding people that many don’t know exist.

“I owe them everything,” said Sauer, who lives in the San Francisco area but grew up in Paradise and was worried about her father’s best friend, Russell Anderson. “I don’t think I would have found him without them.”

Anderson is 70 and lived simply, she said, with no cellphone or internet.

“It made him one of those very difficult people to find,” said Sauer, who knew Anderson had no children but was close with his ex-wife’s daughter, Charmaine. Sauer did not know Charmaine’s last name, but the angels found her.

“They ended up finding Charmaine’s marriage record, then they found birth records showing she had children. They found her children on Facebook and asked, ‘Do you know Russell, and is he with you?’”

The answer was yes. She spoke to Anderson on the phone for 40 minutes, and caught him up on her life, her marriage, her own children. They hadn’t spoken in 15 years. “It was a very sweet conversation between two people that love each other and haven’t seen each other in a long time.”

Several people that Collins’ group tracked down appeared on the official list of people unaccounted for after the fire. That list, managed by the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, is down to six names from a high of 1,300 last month.

Sheriff Kory Honea acknowledged the work of Facebook groups in the effort but said his agency wasn’t coordinating with them or using their resources, primarily because it was so swamped with other work.

“If the Facebook group knows that (people) are safe, they should call us and let us know. There’s no way my staff can check the myriad of Facebook pages,” Honea told The Associated Press.

Collins said when her team located a “missing” person who was on the official list, they emailed the sheriff’s office and also told friends and family of those found to contact the sheriff’s office to have their names removed.

Susie Elliot, 63, tried to get official information about her cousin in Paradise, Dee Riley, but called the sheriff’s office and got repeated busy signals.

For over two weeks, Elliot, who lives in San Dimas, near Los Angeles, checked everywhere she could think of for Riley. She contacted the Red Cross, which was running shelters for fire evacuees, and it had no record of Riley so directed her to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, where she couldn’t get through. She learned Riley’s house burned down and started getting anxious. Then she did a Google search using words like, “missing people in Paradise,” and found the Facebook group.

On Nov. 27, Elliot posted a message to the group saying she couldn’t find her cousin. Within minutes, Kosmakos was on the case. Kosmakos, a stay-at-home mom and part-time administrative assistant, said she found Riley’s cellphone number after a few quick online searches.

“By 3 p.m. the next day, I was in touch with my cousin,” said Elliot, who learned her cousin was safe and was renting an apartment near Sacramento.

“I couldn’t believe they found her in less than 24 hours,” Elliot said.

The angels say they all have personal reasons for doing the work they do.

“I was in a foster home myself. I really don’t have much family,” said Collins. “So, for me, I get joy connecting others to their family.”

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