CHICO, Calif. (AP) — People have scoured evacuation centers, called authorities and posted desperate online pleas for help finding relatives they haven’t heard from since a fast-moving wildfire devastated a Northern California town.
Over a day after tens of thousands evacuated the town of Paradise and the nearby community of Magalia, dozens of people, many of them elderly, remained unaccounted for. Anguished relatives flooded social media asking for help locating their loved ones. Hours later, some were relieved to be reunited with family hours later.
Diane Forsman, who lives in New Hampshire, said her 83-year-old mother can’t walk on her own and relies on oxygen. Her caretaker wasn’t able to reach her Thursday morning when the fire swept through Magalia.
“It’s terrifying,” Forsman said by telephone. “We’re trying to remain hopeful until we get word. We don’t know what the outcome will be.”
She and her brother posted on social media to see if anyone had seen Jean Forsman. They tried calling 911 and other numbers. They were told officials had a list of 300 to 400 welfare checks to do.
Finally, they got word through Facebook on Friday morning that someone in her neighborhood had picked up a woman with disabilities. But the Forsmans haven’t been able to confirm yet whether it’s their mom.
Many of the missing are seniors without cellphones or social media accounts who had moved to the Northern California area that’s known as a refuge for retirees. About one-fourth of Paradise’s 27,000 residents are 65 years or older.
When it was time to evacuate, Suzanne Drews couldn’t get to her 84-year-old mother, who lives east of her in Paradise. Helen Pace lived by herself in a mobile home park with other seniors and didn’t have a cellphone.
Drews registered on several websites set up for missing persons and went to evacuation sites searching for Pace.
“I’m trying not to worry. We’ll keep looking and praying,” Drews said by phone Friday afternoon. “I’m praying that she’s at peace, that she’s comfortable enough and not panicking.”
Cherri Rolla’s family hasn’t heard from her 83-year-old aunt, Sylvia Johnson, who lives in Paradise with at least six dogs and three horses. Rolla said a grandson living nearby tried to get Johnson to leave Thursday but she refused.
“When he went back, they wouldn’t let him in,” said Rolla, who lives of North Dakota. “The hardest part is to be so far away and not figure out what we’re going to try to do to find her.”
On Friday, they got a call that a woman at a church in Oroville may be Johnson.
“We don’t have 100 percent confirmation that it’s her,” Rolla said. “I’m trying not to get too terribly excited.”
Families were aided on Twitter by the actor James Woods who posted and retweeted messages from those looking for missing people. The hashtag he started became a central hub for people trying to reunite with their loved ones.
Steve Christensen drove up more than 130 miles (210 kilometers) from Sutter Creek to Chico and spent Friday trying to find his wife’s sister, Debbie McCrea, and her boyfriend.
McCrea lives on a quarter-acre lot in Paradise and has had to evacuate from wildfires several times. Usually she calls her sister and others to let them know she’s getting out. Not this time.
“She’s evacuated before, so she should know the routine. So that’s why I’m concerned that she hasn’t called us,” said Christensen. “We haven’t heard from her at all since the fire began, and that’s not like her.”
For one desperate day, Dawn Johnson anxiously waited, posting on Twitter and made numerous calls in search of her father Richard Wayne Wilson and his wife Suzanne Wilson.
They lived in an RV park in the California foothill town and were unlikely equipped to evacuate. He has late-stage cancer and she is mostly confined to her bed, she said.
Johnson, of Independence, Oregon, relied on fellow members of the couple’s Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation in Paradise to check local shelters. By Friday afternoon, she learned they were located in nearby Chico.
“They are fine,” she said.
The waiting was overwhelming for Sarah Slate, who frantically searched for more than a day for 39-year-old brother, Richard Slate, who has special needs and lives alone in Paradise.
“All you want to do is cry because you don’t have an answer either way,” said Slate, who lives in central California. “You’re hoping for the best but in this situation, you’re left wondering: ‘Is he alive?’”
By Friday afternoon, Slate said a service agency had found him, though she didn’t know all the details.
“Praise Jesus,” she said in a text message.