‘I can’t just sit around and hope they’re OK’: At least 35 missing in Camp Fire as searches continue

The toll of missing and dead from the fast-moving Camp Fire mounted Friday, leaving family and friends frantic and searching for unaccounted loved ones in Paradise and the surrounding foothill towns.

The Butte County Sheriff’s Office received 35 missing persons reports on Friday and “hundreds” of requests for welfare checks, said Megan McMann, public information officer for the department.

McMann said deputies were visiting shelters to look for the missing.

As of Friday evening, six fatalities had been confirmed in Paradise. Five occurred on one street, as flames overtook cars as people attempted to evacuate, according to a release from the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.

Cell service was spotty Friday, making it hard for searchers to reach those left in town. Many took to social media Thursday and Friday to report missing family members and friends who live in the area.

Many of the people reported missing on social media are elderly. Paradise is home to a large community of retirees.

Jessica Van Amber, a resident of Magalia, north of Paradise, took to Twitter Thursday evening looking for her mother, Jennifer Van Amber, 57, and aunt, Jennifer Close, 60.

Van Amber said she last spoke to them Thursday before 10 a.m. She was in Chico and reached them by phone, but the call was hurried because they were rushing to leave, she said. She hasn’t heard from them since.

She said she tried to get back to Magalia to help them, but the road had been closed by the California Highway Patrol.

“I’m very terrified, but I know that there are things to be done. I can’t just sit around and hope they’re OK,” Van Amber said, crying. “I’m choosing not to focus on the negative and focus on all the people helping me get the word out.”

Loucille Hunt, 90, who was thought to be missing Thursday night, was found wandering the streets of Paradise with her dog overnight and was picked up by a Good Samaritan, her granddaughter, Lynn Brown said Friday. Brown made an emergency trip from Idaho to look for her.

Hunt, who has dementia, lost her home in the fire, Brown said.

“She doesn’t know what’s happened,” Brown said. “She has no clue. She keeps saying she’s had a wonderful time and said the people have been so nice to her. The dementia has blocked out a lot of the tragic things from the last couple days. I keep having to remind her that we’re not going back to her house.”

The American Red Cross maintains a “safe and well” website, where people can self-report their status and family can search for them.

Users wanting to search the list must have either the person’s phone number or complete home address to perform a search. Facebook also offers the option for users to mark themselves as “safe.”

Actor James Woods started the hashtag #CampFireJamesWoods, retweeting missing-person reports to his more than 1.8 million followers. He had tweeted about 200 times by Friday morning regarding the Camp Fire and people and pets reported missing or found, including some of their home addresses for use with the Red Cross registry.

One such unofficial report on Woods’ feed said seven elderly residents from Feather Canyon Retirement Home were found safe at another retirement home in Oroville.

Atria Senior Living’s Paradise location evacuated all of its 77 residents safely to the Marriott in Rancho Cordova, spokeswoman Mary Kate McCarthy confirmed via email.

Sandy Hafley, 79, originally of Woodland and a resident at Atria for just two weeks, said the group left at 8:30 a.m. Thursday amid thick smoke.

“You could see the haze in the lobby and you could smell it,” Hafley said.

“I was more mad than scared,” she said. “I had to leave everything but the shirt on my back.”

Still, Hafley was grateful to be evacuated. “Even though we didn’t know where things were or where we were going, they got us to a safe place and you can’t beat that,” she said.

A command center has been set up at the hotel where residents can be picked up by family members. Residents will be able to stay at the hotel through Sunday, a front desk attendant at the Marriott confirmed.

Friday, some of those seniors congregated in the Marriott lobby and conference rooms, talking and eating pastries.

A 28-year Paradise resident, Walter Parson, 85, was try to cope with more grief, after having recently lost both his wife and his dog.

“I’ve got this deal,” he said, gesturing to his wheelchair. “I had a stroke. My house is probably gone. I don’t know what else could happen.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee