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

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.