As fire burns, many turn to social media for word of missing friends and family

Resident fleeing Camp Fire: ‘The whole town is on fire’

The California town of Paradise was almost completely destroyed by a fast-moving wildfire dubbed the Camp Fire. Residents evacuated as the wildfire drew near. This video, shared on November 8, shows residents trying to escape the fire.
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The California town of Paradise was almost completely destroyed by a fast-moving wildfire dubbed the Camp Fire. Residents evacuated as the wildfire drew near. This video, shared on November 8, shows residents trying to escape the fire.

A crisis is playing out across Twitter and Facebook, and choking shelter and law enforcement phone lines, as hundreds from around the country issue requests asking others to be on the lookout for friends and family lost in the chaos of the massive Camp Fire.

More than 220 people are reported missing, according to Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea as of Sunday evening, as firefighters battle the massive fire that exploded across the city of Paradise Thursday morning.

Among the missing is Amy Laughlin, 59, said her older brother, Kip Mountain, who lives in Las Vegas.

Laughlin, a 19-year Paradise resident, has mental health issues and is currently seeking treatment for bipolar disorder, he said. But when he called the treatment center in town, they had no information about her whereabouts.

“I had a contact able to get up into Paradise and he drove by her house and it was destroyed,” he said.

She doesn’t own a car, Mountain said, and relied on public transportation to get around. Her son, Magalia resident David Laughlin, was able to evacuate with friends but he too hasn’t reconnected with his mother.

Like Mountain, many are refreshing the American Red Cross’s “Safe and Well” database every few minutes, hoping to see a family member listed as OK. Others are calling nearby hotels and shelters with descriptions of their missing loved ones, having already filed missing person reports with the Butte County Sheriff’s Department.

The department activated a missing persons call center Sunday to provide and receive information about unaccounted for individuals. The call center, which can be reached at (530) 538-6570, (530) 538-7544 and (530) 538-7671, will be staffed and answered daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., according to the press release.

Honea said Sunday night that his department has received more than 500 reports of missing people since the fire first sparked Thursday. Many have turned out to be duplicate requests to locate the same individual or lacked sufficient information to follow up on.

Searches are ongoing but difficult because some areas are still unsafe to search or have extensive debris, Honea said during a Saturday night press conference. In some cases, the fire may have burned so hot there may be no remains.

In particular, many of the reported missing on social media are older residents, with posts noting that their friend or relative doesn’t have a cellphone, access to a car or some form of disability.

Jackie Miller Parker and her husband Bill Parker have been trying to get in contact with Paradise resident Russell Bush for days.

Bush, the best man at their wedding and a close friend for more than 30 years, only had a landline and had recently gotten rid of his truck to buy a new vehicle.

“Knowing Russell he’d be helping people if he’s capable,” said Jackie Miller Parker, who lives in Southern California. “I know it’s so overwhelming he might not have an opportunity to reach us even though we’re all worried.”

“Or he’s injured,” her husband said. They avoided the more grim possibility.

Also missing is Robert Sutliff, 51, who was a renter living in a converted garage on Bille Road in Paradise.

His stepdaughter, Kiatta Isaacson, is battling a different disaster. A FEMA employee, Isaacson has been deployed to south Georgia in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, which killed more than a dozen people.

Isaacson’s friends have been able to contact Sutliff’s landlord, who made it out safely, but haven’t been able to reach Sutliff.

“We have a missing person’s report out” with the sheriff’s department, Isaacson said. “They called Friday and asked if he’s still missing” and after her friend confirmed her stepdad was still missing, “they said basically to hang in there and they’re doing the best they can.”

For some, the agonizing wait for news on their missing loved ones has come to a happy end. John Warner, a Mi Wuk Village resident, initially had five family members unaccounted for in Paradise.

After visiting multiple shelters in Oroville and Chico, he had been able to locate all but two - his grandfather and his grandfather’s wife. At a community meeting in Chico, he went on a live broadcast with Action News Now to share information about his missing family members. “Less than five seconds later my phone blew up and I knew where they were,” at a small shelter at a Chico church, he said.

“There are 50,000 evacuees and some people would say I got lucky,” Warner said. “I just fully believe it’s divine appointment.”

Many still are in the dark, however. Larre Christopher Jensen, 54, initially thought the fire encroaching his Magalia home “wasn’t that serious,” even as his other family members fled, said his daughter, Courtney Wright.

“My brothers (who were) home at the time, they were like, ‘Dad, we have to go, we need to start packing’ and he refused” to leave Thursday morning when the fire first broke out, Wright said.

A neighbor told her that they had last seen her father getting into his blue 1995 Chevrolet Beretta about noon Friday, but no one’s been able to get in contact with him since. Jensen has Type 1 diabetes and is agoraphobic, his daughter said, and she has no idea whether he has enough insulin or food to survive.

“I can’t even put into words how I feel,” she said.

As of Saturday night, 23 people have died in the massive conflagration according to Honea. Nineteen were in the Paradise area, and four were in Concow, many of whom were found in their cars apparently unable to flee the flames.