CHICO, Calif. — People have scoured evacuation centers, called 911 and posted desperate online pleas for help finding relatives they haven’t heard from since a fast-moving wildfire devastated a Northern California town.
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.
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 says a grandson living nearby saw Johnson on Thursday and tried to get her to leave, 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.”
Social media sites were filled with gut-wrenching pleas for help, including one from the relatives of Jean Forsman.
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,” Diane 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 her. 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.
“Paradise, unfortunately, is just one of those (places) — there’s a lot of elderly, a lot of immobile people, some low income with no vehicles,” Chico police Officer John Barker said.
The missing included Richard Wayne Johnson and his wife, Suzanne Johnson, who live in an RV park in Paradise that is believed to have burned, said his daughter Dawn Johnson of Independence, Oregon.
“He has Stage 4 prostate cancer, she’s in her 70s and mostly confined to her bed due to fibromyalgia,” Dawn Johnson said.
The couple moved from Texas to the California foothill town about a year ago and were probably not prepared to evacuate in a wildfire, she said.
Johnson hasn’t been able to reach them by cellphone, and fellow members of the couple’s Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation in Paradise told her they have not seem them at shelters.
“I checked all over Red Cross, anything you can think of I’ve tried to do,” she said.
Families sought help on Twitter from the actor James Woods who began posting and retweeting messages from relatives looking for loved ones using two hashtags he started.
Sarah Slate and her family were terrified when it had been more than a day since they heard from her 39-year-old brother, Richard Slate, who has special needs and lives alone.
“All you want to do is cry because you don’t have an answer either way,” said Slate, who lives in central California. “Not knowing is driving us crazy. You’re hoping for the best but in this situation, you’re left wondering: ‘Is he alive?’
By Friday afternoon, Slate said someone had found him, though she didn’t know all the details. “Praise Jesus,” she said in a text message.
Jessica Van Amber, 18, who lives in Magalia but was 15 miles (24 kilometers) away in Chico when the fire broke out, searched several shelters, called friends and appealed to people on social media to help her find her aunt and mom.
About 24 hours after she heard they were rushing to flee Magalia, Van Amber posted on Twitter: “UPDATE: MY MOM HAS BEEN FOUND!!!!!!”
Van Amber said by telephone that she was so relieved they were safe, but “it doesn’t look like there’s anything left of our home.”
Le reported from Seattle. Associated Press writer Jennifer Sinco Kelleher in Honolulu contributed to this report.