‘We’re traumatized but we’re alive’: Survivors come forward as Camp Fire death toll rises to 56

Some are missing. Some aren’t. Some, nobody knows.

As the death toll from the Camp Fire increased to at least 56 Wednesday, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office released a list of 103 people who have been reported missing since the blaze erupted last week, part of an effort to determine how many area residents actually are still unaccounted for and should be the subject of law enforcement searches.

By evening, the list of missing had grown to 130, though some on the original tally had been located. Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the names will be updated daily.

Some of the residents listed as missing got out safely when the fire swept through the Paradise area Thursday, others appear to have died long before the fire erupted, and dozens remain unaccounted for, according to a Sacramento Bee survey of Paradise neighborhoods and calls to relatives of those reported missing.

Beverly Jean Sparks and Wallace Sparks are on the list, but are not missing, according to their grandson, Patrick Sparks, who told The Bee that they evacuated Thursday to a nearby family cabin.

“Knowing that they’re on the list and knowing that they’re not missing ... I’m hoping that a lot of people are in the same boat because that means there are a lot less people dead,” he said.

The whereabouts of others remained a mystery as 461 search and rescue workers, including 50 from the state National Guard, continue to sift through ash and wreckage looking for human remains. Honea said the teams are working with 22 cadaver dogs as they try to deal with the deadliest and most destructive fire in state history.

Officials said the fire had burned 140,000 acres and was 40 percent contained as of Thursday morning, with 10,227 structures destroyed, 8,650 of them homes. About 52,000 people remained evacuated as of Wednesday night, with 1,385 living in shelters.

The rapid pace of the fire drove people to flee from their homes with no possessions — including cell phones. Official shelters, where evacuees are identified and logged, are overflowing, leaving some to take refuge in makeshift camps or unsanctioned facilities opened by churches and other groups. The lack of communication and chaos of the evacuation has increased confusion about who got out safely and who actually is still missing.

In some places, the grim rubble of homes turned out to be a false clue to the fate of their occupants.

Paradise resident Mary Ann McAlvain is the first person on the sheriff’s missing list, and the Judy Lane house listed in public records as her home was leveled by the fire.

Wednesday afternoon, all that remained was ash and a charred foundation. Three firefighters from Gresham, Ore., were searching what was left, but could not find even evidence of beds or bathtubs where the house once stood.

But her sister-in-law, Teresa Kennebeck, said McAlvain escaped the fire by driving to Chico Thursday night with her dog, and is now staying with a friend in Santa Rosa.

At another house on Clark Road, where resident Joseph Carmack and three other Carmack family members are listed as missing, there was no sign that forensics teams had been there yet, and all that is left of the house is a chimney.

But a friend of the family told The Bee they had been in contact with the Carmacks and that all of them are safe.

“They’re OK, the whole family got out,” said Ty Moyer, whose wife used to be married to a member of the Carmack family.

Anita Pagan was also on the missing person’s list, but confirmed in an interview that she managed to escape the fire with her service dog and husband George Graham after he “did some very bold driving choices” and “went into adrenaline, Superman mode.”

“We’re traumatized but we’re alive,” Pagan said, adding that she saw video footage of her neighborhood, with her house “flattened” and her car melted in the driveway.

Camp Fire in Butte County

Red circles on this live-updating map are actively burning areas, as detected by satellite. Orange circles have burned in the past 12 to 24 hours, and yellow circles have burned within the past 48 hours. Yellow areas represent the fire perimeter.
Source: National Interagency Fire Center

Others were not so fortunate. Home after home listed as belonging to missing people was destroyed in the fire, and search teams are continuing to look for human remains throughout the Paradise area. Eight more victims were recovered there Wednesday, Honea said, six inside homes and two outside.

At the Idlewild Mobile Home Estates park on Sawmill Road, at least two dozen units were burned and had collapsed in upon themselves.

A charred statuette of the Blessed Mother stood in front of one as two cadaver dogs and 20 search and rescue workers sifted through the wreckage and lifted the twisted roofs of mobile homes to check the ashes for human remains.

None of the workers would comment, but they had been searching all day and, at 3 p.m., one of them made a grim discovery.

“That’s a right femur,” the man said as he searched. A few minutes later, another man using a sifter that made it look like he was panning for gold found another large bone.

Minutes later, a small black hearse pulled up to the scene.

Only three victims have been named officially by the sheriff as being confirmed dead, but he said Wednesday night that 47 of the 56 victims have been tentatively identified. Honea said he is waiting for DNA confirmation before releasing the names.

But family members of some victims have come forward to say they believe their loved ones died fleeing the inferno.

Roman Digby, the son of Paradise resident John Arthur Digby, 78, said the coroner’s office confirmed Wednesday that his father had been found dead inside his trailer park home.

Roman Digby lives in Minnesota and said by phone that the coroner had asked him to provide a DNA sample to his local law enforcement agency that would be sent to Butte County so a death certificate could be issued.

The elder Digby was a retired postal worker who delivered mail in North Hollywood for 35 years, and was a “kind and gentle man” who was “big with the dad jokes,” his son said.

He loved to eat butter pecan ice cream and grilled cheese sandwiches, and was known to spend hours in the calculator store, programming graphing calculators and playing games on them for fun.

Digby and his wife, Nancy, retired to the Pine Springs Mobile Home Park on Clark Road after his mother passed away and left it to him.

“He liked Paradise,” Digby said. “It was a nice town to retire to so they decided to move there.”

Digby is survived by his son and grandson, Joey, 14.

Digby’s name was not among those listed as missing, likely because searchers had removed human remains from the wreckage of his trailer Tuesday, before the list was released.

Another potential victim is Gerald “Jerry” Rodrigues, 74. His daughter, Neva Rodrigues, said she received a call from a detective saying remains were found her father’s Clark Road home and that she will submit a DNA sample to confirm the identity.

But, she said, she has no reason to believe it’s not him.

“I’m really, really hoping that he’s not just laying there up under ashes and debris while we all sit here on pins and needles waiting for the fate of my father,” she said.

The ages of those reported as missing range from their 30s to two 95-year-old men. More than one-quarter of the names on the list belong to people in their 80s or 90s. In some cases, the names appear to be of couples.

The sheriff’s office has received hundreds of missing persons reports in the days after the fire and want people to study the list and tell authorities if their name has been placed on it incorrectly.

“If your name is on the list, it means that someone is looking for you,” the sheriff said. “Let us know that you’re okay, so that we can stop our search for you and start looking for someone else.”

“If you are one of the individuals listed, please contact the Butte County Sheriff’s Office Missing Person Call Center at 530-538-6570, 530-538-7544, or 530-538-7671 to advise that you are safe and there is no further need to search for you,” the sheriff’s office said in a news release.

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