The missing person report filed with Red Cross a week and a half ago was sparse on details and heartbreaking: An 87-year-old man who lived alone had not been seen since the Camp fire tore through the city of Paradise nearly a month ago.
“This report was from a woman who was a friend of the man’s wife, who had passed away several weeks before the fire,” said Tiffany Bender, one of 15 Red Cross investigators dedicated to tracking down missing persons in the aftermath of the most destructive wildfire in California history.
“She wanted to know if the gentleman was OK,” Bender, 35, recalled on Sunday, “because he’s 87, had just lost his wife and had no children, so there was no family to turn to for help.”
The case was immediately classified as an “emergency welfare inquiry” and the Red Cross investigators launched an arduous and tedious effort to determine what happened to Arnold Shelton — for better or worse.
“We scoured Facebook, Google, Instagram and every search engine imaginable,” she said. “We also called 700 hospitals, assisted living facilities, hotels and motels between Redding and San Francisco. No dice. Each, in turn, said, ‘Sorry, he’s not here.’ ”
For Bender, the search became a personal mission. “I taped his name to a corner of my computer, so he was front and center on my mind every day,” she recalled. “But as the days passed, I started to worry. I even started making arrangements to pay for Arnold’s funeral, if necessary.”
Bender figured it would cost roughly $2,700 for cremation services and a headstone showing, as she put it, “that there was somebody there for him. I didn’t want Mr. Shelton to die a nobody.”
On Sunday morning, Bender arrived at work with an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.
“I set a cup of hot coffee down on my desk, flipped on the computer, then typed in the name Arnold Shelton in the Google search box,” she said. “I felt sure his name would come up attached to the word ‘deceased.’”
All that changed at 8:30 a.m., when a Red Cross liaison with the Butte County Sheriff’s Office messaged the good news: Arnold Shelton is safe. He’s at a senior assisted living complex in Chico, about five miles from your office.
With tears streaming down her face, Bender looked up at the ceiling and and announced out loud: “Arnold Shelton is safe.”
A few hours later, Bender and three other members of the Red Cross reunification team trooped into Shelton’s room. “You’ve had the Red Cross searching for you for over a week,” Bender said, reaching out to embrace the startled man that had consumed her every waking moment.
“Oh yeah,” Shelton asked with a puzzled look on his face. “Why’s that?”
The latest tally of people missing in the Camp fire has dropped to 24, authorities said Sunday.
Initially, friends and family had reported more than 3,100 people missing, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office. But the number has steadily declined during weeks of nonstop searching since the fire exploded across Paradise and neighboring towns, incinerating homes, hospitals, businesses, churches and schools.
Authorities were easing some evacuation orders Sunday. The Sheriff’s Office said residents of some parts of Magalia and Concow would be allowed in with identification.
The fire started on Nov. 8, causing 88 deaths — with officials tentatively identifying 42 victims while positively identifying another 41 victims.
Butte County Sheriff Kory L. Honea said earlier he and his team “are doing everything in our power” to track down the remains of those reported lost or missing so that they may return them to loved ones, adding that the remains unearthed are “nearly completely consumed” by the ravages of fire.
The deadly inferno also left 12 civilians and five firefighters injured, and destroyed more than 18,800 structures, with most of the damage occurring the first two days. Officials contained the fire after 17 days, on Nov. 25.
Sahagun reported from Chico, Do from Los Angeles.