Camp Fire: Widespread missing person reports on social media in Paradise

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Amid the chaotic spread of the Camp Fire in Butte County, which devastated the town of Paradise, scores of users took to social media Thursday and Friday to report missing family members and friends who live in the area.

The out-of-control wildfire that erupted Thursday morning has destroyed at least 2,000 structures and continues to threaten at least 15,000 more, having spread to at least 70,000 acres as of Cal Fire’s latest incident report Friday.

Twitter and Facebook users reported friends and loved ones living in Paradise who were unaccounted for. The town of about 26,000 people lost all power Thursday as the violent blaze knocked out power lines; Pacific Gas and Electric Co. de-energized some lines as a precaution, reportedly at the request of firefighters, a spokesperson said late Thursday morning.

A Butte County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson confirmed authorities have received missing-person reports out of Paradise, but no count or estimate was available as of 8 a.m. Friday.

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 so she called their house, but the phone call was short 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 already 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, tearing up over the phone. “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 traveled 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” registry website, allowing people to self-report their safety status. Users looking through this registry must have either the person’s phone number of complete home address to perform a search. Facebook also offers the option for users to mark themselves as “safe.”

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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.

Many of the people reported missing on social media are elderly.

Atria Senior Living’s Paradise location posted on Facebook early Friday that all of its residents were safely evacuated and have been taken to the Marriott in Rancho Cordova, where a command center has been set up and residents can be picked up by family members. The evacuated senior living facility has 77 residents, spokeswoman Mary Kate McCarthy said in an emailed statement.

Evacuation centers have been set up at the Butte County Fairgrounds in Gridley, Church of the Nazarene in Oroville and the Neighborhood Church in Chico (reported full as of Cal Fire’s 8 p.m. Thursday incident update). The Butte County Sheriff’s Department is maintaining updated information on evacuation areas and shelters on its Twitter feed.

Butte County’s Twitter feed has also been active with evacuation information; the county’s official website appeared to be down as of Friday morning.

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