Preparedness & Recovery

North Bay Fires: Frantic Escapes Turn to Agonizing Searches for 180 Still Missing

The search continues for more than 180 people who remain missing in Sonoma County after Sunday’s firestorm sent tens of thousands of residents fleeing for their lives.

by Julia Prodis Sulek and Tracy Seipel, The Mercury News / October 11, 2017

(TNS) — Michael Hanson was sedated in a hospital bed with third-degree burns over half his body Monday when his cellphone rang. The nurse picked it up. It was Hanson’s best friend on the line, searching for his buddy and Hanson’s disabled daughter ever since their neighborhood went up in flames the night before.

Hanson was right beside her, unconscious, the nurse told him. But Hanson’s 27-year-old daughter Christina? The nurse knew nothing.

“We can’t find Christina,” cousin Brittney Vinculado, 32, said on Tuesday. “We’ve been feeling pretty helpless.”

Like hundreds of other searching for loved ones missing in the wake of the fires that ripped through Sonoma and Napa, Calif., counties early this week, Vinculado and her family are trying everything to find Christina, who uses a wheelchair and has spina bifida.

They are filing missing persons reports with the sheriff’s office, flooding social media with appeals, calling hospitals and morgues and searching by foot through rows of cots at some of the Red Cross’ 25 shelters.

On Tuesday, the death toll in Sonoma County rose to 11, while the combined fatalities from the major fires burning throughout Northern California climbed to 17 — one of the deadliest outbreaks of wildfires in decades. In Napa County, an elderly couple, 100 and 98 years old, died in a fire that destroyed their home off the Silverado Trail.

But the search continues for more than 180 people who remain missing in Sonoma County after Sunday’s firestorm sent tens of thousands of residents fleeing for their lives. The good news: Fifty-seven people previously reported missing had been located — and were safe — as of Tuesday afternoon, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said.

And officials are expecting that most of the missing are alive and well and are likely without cellphones — or cellphone service. Some 77 cell towers were downed during the wind-driven fire early Monday.

Still, search teams are beginning the grim task of combing through the rubble in Santa Rosa’s incinerated neighborhoods for victims of the Tubbs fire, which raced through the city late Sunday and early Monday morning.

“Our entire investigations unit is following up just on missing people right now, trying to link that together,” Giordano said.

The wind-whipped flames tore through town in the middle of the night, sending tens of thousands of residents to race from danger in pajamas or a quick change of clothes.

“There are 25 different evacuation centers,” Giordano said. “Cellphones are very spotty. … People didn’t take their chargers with them, so they don’t have power with them. So a lot of it is just confusion, trying to link them together.”

Giordano said he was optimistic more would be found safe, but he acknowledged search teams are prepared to find more victims.

“I also know how big this is and how much has burned, and I expect there may be a couple more,” he said.

At the “Journey’s End” senior citizen mobile home park, James Cook said he’s amazed that all the residents of the 180 homes are accounted for.

“It’s a miracle everyone survived,” he said, standing in front of the ruins of his own home. “It was so quick. These places go up in five to 10 minutes — and they’re burned to the ground.”

Some of the residents, on walkers and canes, had to be lifted by firefighters over the cinderblock wall at the back of the park, he said, since flames turned them away from the entrance.

Desperation grows for others waiting for word. The family of Christina Hanson are praying she’s safe. About 2 a.m. Monday, a neighbor found her father badly burned in the lower half of his body, walking along a road around the bend from his home in the Mark West neighborhood of Santa Rosa.

His chaotic journey to safety illustrates how so many loved ones were separated.

Hanson — a 55-year-old retired electrical contractor — was suffering from shock, but in his hands he carried Joey, his small terrier mix, burned on his paws.

“We think maybe he tried to get Christina out, or was able to get her evacuated, and went back for the dog,” Vinculado said.

The neighbor picked them up and sped them to the emergency room at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, but he was transferred twice and now is being treated at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco, where he remains sedated and unconscious.

But the mystery of Christina remains. Confined to a wheelchair, she lives in an apartment behind her father’s home. The family learned someone was rescued from the address in the middle of the night, but it isn’t clear if that was Christina.

Christina’s stepmother, Jennifer Watson, begged a firefighter to check on the property later Monday. He returned with grim news: The family home and apartment had burned to the ground.

Watson, who is divorced from Hanson and didn’t live in the home, continued Tuesday to search hospitals and evacuation centers.

The frantic and desperate are a familiar sight to Lauren Thompson, who mans the front table at the Red Cross shelter at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. As many as 20 an hour line up looking for news of their loved ones.

“They all ask the same thing: Where is my grandmother, my parents, my cousin?” Thompson said.

And most of the time, she has only this to say: “Unfortunately, they’re not on the list.”

“We’re concerned there may be more fatalities,” Harris said. “We have active investigations now for other people who may be deceased.”

Frances Dinkelspiel of Berkeley finally found her brother — also in a hospital burn unit after his home on Hopper Road was destroyed — but only some 24 frantic hours after her search began.

“It was extremely frustrating,” she said. She and her family called everywhere, twice it seemed. She tweeted and posted photos. She called emergency shelters, but all she heard was, “there are 700 people here, I can’t help you.”

Bryce Cottle, from Austin, Texas, is still trying to find his 83-year-old grandmother, Marjolein van Hasselt, who lived alone in her Santa Rosa neighborhood, which was evacuated.

“I’m pretty concerned. I have no idea if her house or her neighborhood was burned,” he said. She doesn’t have a cellphone and “she doesn’t have our numbers memorized.”

Cottle signed up with the Red Cross website “Safe and Well,” in hopes that his grandmother would have signed up at the shelter and they could connect. But by Tuesday afternoon, they still hadn’t.

People still searching for family and friends should call the Sonoma County Emergency Operations Center at 707-565-3856.

“We’re encouraging everyone to report their missing relative on that line,” Sheriff Giordano said. “We’re also encouraging them to call us if they find their missing relative so we can take people off that list.”

That’s what Christina Hanson’s family hopes they can do.

“Our hope is that she was taken to a hospital,” Vinculado said. “But if she’s injured, she might be unable to tell people who she is.’’
 

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