As the death toll continues to rise in the deadliest wildfire in California history, the sheriff of the Northern California county where the fire still rages said on Friday that more than 1,000 people were still missing, a startling increase from previous lists.
As of Friday, 71 people had been confirmed dead in the fire, which swept through the city of Paradise and surrounding areas November 8. Around 500 specialists and more than 20 cadaver dogs are combing the incinerated hills and gullies of the wooded community for human remains. The new list of the missing, which stunned even officials who have surveyed the devastation and were expecting the worst, raised questions about who is on the list and how it was compiled.
A new list of the missing had hundreds more names than a list released earlier. Why did it increase so dramatically?
Sheriff Kory Honea of Butte County said staff members revised the list by adding every person described as missing in every 911 call they had received since the fire started, including during the panicked moments when it first descended on the area.
“I give you the best information that I have now,” the sheriff said. “We are not going to wait for perfect to impede progress.”
The sheriff said on Friday that officials had accounted for about 330 people on a prior list of people who were unaccounted for but that the total still grew Friday as more names were added.
“This is a dynamic list,” Honea said. “It will fluctuate both up and down every day.”
Why put people on the list if the sheriff is not sure that they are actually missing?
The list includes people who may not know they were reported missing. Honea said his hope was that people who were safe and had wrongly been classified as missing would check the list and call the Sheriff’s Office. “We are finding that there are a lot of people who don’t know that we are looking for them,” the sheriff said. “That is why we are publishing this list.”
Is there a pattern in the people listed as missing?
Many are older. Of the 246 people for whom ages were given, more than 200 were over 60. The youngest person on the list is 20, and the oldest is 101.
Eric Reinbold, the police chief of Paradise, the town worst affected by the fire, said the new list underscored how many older people may have been trapped by the fire.
“Like any community, we had elderly folks, and some of them gave up driving or can’t drive,” Reinbold said. “There’s a number of reasons for people not having the ability to evacuate on their own.”
How reliable is the list?
Like the escape from the fire itself, the search for the missing has been at times chaotic. An earlier list published by the Sheriff’s Office included five people with ages listed at 119 years old. The five are still on the list of the missing, but their ages have been removed. At least five names are listed twice, and there are also question marks next to some people.
Has anyone on the list been found?
A search through Facebook seems to indicate that at least a dozen people who survived the fire are on the missing list.
David and Frances Neil are listed as missing in Butte County, but the couple’s daughter-in-law, Domonique Neil, said they were “safe and with family.”
The experience of the Neil family and others erroneously reported as missing highlights one possible shortcoming of the system: Those who are safe have no incentive to check the list and help correct it.
Do officials have any estimates of what the final death toll might be?
California has never seen a fire like this. Law enforcement officials are very reluctant to guess.
Reinbold said he had no way of predicting what the final numbers would be. But he prays it’s nowhere near the hundreds of people on the list: “Nobody wants that number to be that high.”