The Slatest

Massive List of Missing Californians Amid the Camp Fire Reflects the Chaos and Uncertainty of the Disaster

CHICO, CA - NOVEMBER 18: Mourners pray during a vigil for Camp Fire victims at the First Christian Church of Chico on November 18, 2018 in Chico, California. The blaze has killed at least 76 people and destroyed more than 10,000 structures according to Cal Fire. (Photo by Noah Berger-Pool/Getty Images)
Mourners pray during a vigil for Camp Fire victims at the First Christian Church of Chico on Sunday in Chico, California.
Pool/Getty Images

In addition to the climbing death toll from the Camp Fire in Northern California that burned through the city of Paradise on Nov. 8, the list of missing—numbering more than 900— portends the fire could become a disaster with few precedents in modern American history. There are 77 confirmed deaths in the Northern California fire and three in the Woolsey Fire in Southern California. (The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 claimed as many as 300 lives, while the Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin, which started on the same day, killed at least 1,200. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire killed 700–3,000.)

The official number of missing people jumped from just over 100 in the middle of last week to more than 600 by Thursday and to more than 1,000 on Friday, then dipped to more than 900 on Sunday. The list of missing has been compiled by law enforcement in Butte County.

The list, unlike the death toll, is fluid and can expand and contract as authorities make contact with people on it. The Los Angeles Times found a few instances of people being listed more than once, or being listed by different spellings of their names. The New York Times found “at least a dozen people” who were on the list but still alive just by searching through Facebook.

One concerning factor, however, is that many people on the list are elderly residents who may have had more difficulty fleeing the fire. On one version of the list, the Los Angeles Times reported, “430 names with ages listed were in their 70s and 80s.” Another less grim possibility is that those older folks are a bit harder to locate than younger ones and are less likely be reachable through social media or to even be aware they are on the online list of missing people.

The Los Angeles Times said that Butte County officials are constructing the list based on calls and emails from people reporting missing residents and by “mining through reports generated at the peak of the chaotic evacuation.” The New York Times reported that the sheriff’s office added people by looking at 911 calls made during the fire.

The Butte County sheriff’s office told the New York Times that it had been able to find 330 people through Friday, although that figure was outpaced by the number of missing people added to the list.