The number of deaths from California’s worst fire rose to 48 Tuesday as authorities and family members mounted desperate searches for the hundreds still missing.
The Camp fire has scorched 130,000 acres since Thursday, ripping through mountain towns in Butte County. More than 8,800 structures — mostly homes in Paradise — were leveled as the blaze charred the region.
The death toll from the fire jumped Monday when officials said they recovered the remains of 13 people as teams continued to search the rubble of thousands of lost homes. The remains of 10 people were located in Paradise, and three were found in the Concow area.
Amid the wreckage, search teams continued to sift through rubble and ash. Residents are holding out hope that their loved ones who went missing when the fire tore through their towns might be found.
The confusing search for hundreds of missing people has been complicated by many factors: bad cellphone service. A lack of access to burned-out areas. A sheer scattering of people across the region who are staying in shelters, hotels, friends’ houses and their vehicles and may have not gotten in touch with loved ones.
Over the last several days, Blake Bellairs, 36, has been searching for his brother, Josh.
Bellairs and his girlfriend drove down from Medford, Ore.,on Monday night to pick up his mother and stepfather, residents of Paradise, who lost everything in the fire. Finding Josh hasn't been so easy.
Bellairs has tried calling the local jails, authorities and TV stations, and scoured social media for mentions of his brother. He has called his brother's friends and ex-girlfriends. One friend heard that Josh got a ride through Magalia, but who knows.
This morning, Bellairs bought glass chalk from Walmart and wrote "Missing Josh Bellairs" all over his black Ford pickup, along with his phone number.
Although Bellairs hasn't spoken to his brother in years, he said his stepfather and mother keep in touch sporadically with Josh, who recently had fallen on rough times and was moving from place to place.
"I just want to know he's all right," Bellairs said standing near his truck Tuesday afternoon with tears in his eyes. His stepfather and mother have lived in Paradise for 40 years and lost everything except for a single bag of belongings.
Bellairs, his stepfather, mother and girlfriend are staying at a local shelter but won't be in the area for much longer. His stepfather has health issues, and they can't stay in the cold much longer.
"We're trying to hold out," Bellairs said.
At Chico’s Neighborhood Church, hundreds of handwritten names are listed on a board, a makeshift information center for anxious relatives and friends to find one another.
The board, at a Red Cross shelter, is throwback to the era before Facebook and Twitter. On white-and-yellow-lined paper, friends and relatives write down the names of the missing, their relationship to the person and a contact number.
Photos and personal messages are also posted. “I love you” was written next to the name “John Sedwick.” A man left a message for Mary Cory: “I’m OK, don’t worry about me.” He said he was headed to Yuba City and left a Gmail address.
Paradise resident Jayne Keith lost her house in the blaze and came to the shelter Tuesday to get dog food, blankets and pajamas. She was staying with family members at a hotel in Red Bluff. Keith peered at the board and wrote down the phone number of someone looking for a woman named Barbara Hayes. Keith said a woman whose last name is “Hayes” was staying down the road from her hotel. Keith paused, fretting about the last name. “I think it’s spelled differently. I don’t know if it’s the same woman.”
Paradise resident Greg Gibson looked over the board to see if there was any news about his neighbors, whom he knew only by their last name, Machuga. The couple is in their 60s, he said, and lived in an A-frame house. “Very nice people,” Gibson said.
One man stared at the list, frustrated. He wanted to know who was staying at the Red Cross shelter at the church, but no one was able to give him that information. He was accompanied by a woman looking for her brother; both declined to give their names. “We’d like a list of who is here,” he said. “This is ‘looking for.’”
On Tuesday, crews were working to build up defenses around the town of Cherokee near the Feather River and Stirling City, northeast of Paradise and Magalia, which were both devastated by the fire.
Two of the biggest question marks facing firefighters will be how the fire behaves when it hits swaths of landscape to the fire’s east and north. Officials say the area has no documented history of fire, meaning it’s likely extremely overgrown and dense, which can create explosive fire conditions.
“Be aware, there is a lot of fuel out there ready to burn really hot,” fire behavior analyst Jonathan Pangburn told crews at a morning briefing at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico on Tuesday morning.
Pressing her hand against her head, Paradise resident Teresa Moniz scanned a list of missing persons taped to a board at the Neighborhood Church in Chico. Hundreds of handwritten names were scrawled on yellow-and-white papers. The names of friends and relatives also are listed, along with contact numbers. A few photos of missing persons were pinned to the board.
Her hand shook as she added her husband’s name: “Albert Moniz aka Pete.” When the Camp fire broke out, Moniz, 60, was in nearby Magalia, and her 67-year-old disabled husband was at their home in Paradise, she said.
“He called me and said: “There’s a fire; I have to get out,’” Moniz said, her eyes filling with tears.
Her husband went to a friend’s house and called again from there. That was the last time she heard from him. He doesn’t have a cellphone, she said.
Moniz said she knows their Paradise home on Edgewood Lane burned because she saw a video showing its destruction. Moniz said her husband’s daughter started a Facebook page in the hope of finding him.