Families Search for Missing Loved Ones Amid California Fire Chaos

Families Search for Missing Loved Ones Amid California Fire Chaos

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The Camp Fire in Northern California burned thousands of homes in communities including Paradise. Officials said they received many reports of missing persons.CreditCreditJosh Edelson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

After the deadly and fast-growing wildfire began to threaten his hometown, Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Al Silva got in his four-door Buick sedan and fled west.

His family made contact with the 91-year-old on Thursday night, when he was at a parking lot in Chico, Calif., Mari Irby, Mr. Silva’s great-niece, said.

And then, silence.

For nearly two days, Mr. Silva’s family called shelters, hospitals and filed a missing persons report with the police, Ms. Irby said. She posted a plea on Twitter for help. She said Mr. Silva had left his cellphone in his home, which was almost certainly destroyed.

“What everybody is trying to figure out is: Would he have gone back to try to get stuff? Did he realize he left his cellphone and went to go get it?” Ms. Irby said on Saturday.

The police found Mr. Silva on Saturday afternoon. Inexplicably, he was without his car. Ms. Irby, 25, said the family was still trying to figure out exactly where he was found and how he got there, but his discovery on Saturday was a relief.

“It’s definitely the best-case scenario versus the worst-case scenario,” she said. “We’re just kind of looking for answers, but glad that he’s alive.”

Ms. Irby’s story is not unique. The Camp Fire, which has become the most destructive in modern California history, displaced thousands of residents as it destroyed 6,700 structures in the northern part of the state and continued to rage. On Saturday, the fire became the third-deadliest in the state’s history, with a death toll of at least 23.

For many family members, that meant desperate searches for loved ones missing amid the chaos.

An estimated 52,000 people had evacuated from the Camp Fire, Butte County officials said at a news conference on Friday. Sheriff Kory L. Honea said his office had received 35 reports of missing persons. The county is home to 220,000 residents.

“This is a big job for us,” Sheriff Honea said. “A lot of people have been displaced and separated from loved ones.”

Scott McLean, the deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said on Friday that it was “phenomenal” how fast the fire spread, and that he expected the death toll to rise. Officials said nine people died in the Camp Fire, and two were killed in the Woolsey Fire in Southern California.

A spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department said on Saturday it had not received reports of missing persons in the fires west of Los Angeles.

The police directed those looking for missing family or friends to the American Red Cross’s website, Safe and Well, where people can register themselves as safe.

Michael de Vulpillieres, a spokesman for the American Red Cross, said more than 3,800 people had registered in the California wildfires since Nov. 8, more than the number reported during Hurricane Michael. He said the site had helped match 539 people with those trying to find them.

Family members like Ms. Irby seeking information drew an unexpected champion: the actor James Woods, who since Thursday has been publicizing tweets from those searching for their loved ones.

Mr. Woods said in an interview on Saturday he wanted to use his fame to help broaden the reach of those in need.

“Probably the only advantage in being a celebrity is I have these two million followers on Twitter and they are all energized to repeat things,” said Mr. Woods, who has acted in films such as “Salvador,” “Casino” and “Nixon.”

Hundreds of people reposted Mr. Woods’s tweets. On some occasions, at least, it seemed to help.

Mr. Woods, who used hashtags combining his name with the name or geography of the fires — #CampFireJamesWoods and #SoCalFiresJamesWoods — said he wanted to create a unique set of keywords that could become the go-to place for people looking for missing persons. Other popular hashtags used during the fire, such as #campfire, were too muddled with general information or observations, he said.

“Many people have said to me, ‘You’re the only resource where people are getting information,’” he said.

Mr. Woods said accusations that he was using the hashtag simply to promote himself were “patently absurd.”

“I’ve got everything I want,” Mr. Woods said. “I’ve suffered all of the joys of life and all of the sorrows of life that a person can have appreciated or endured. I just simply want to help people, and this seems to be working.”

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