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Chaos, lack of communication frustrates families of missing

Chrystal Couto holds a poster of her grandmother as Aaron Austin looks on in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017. The couple from Redway, are searching for Couto's grandmother and her husband, who haven't been heard from since a wildfire tore through the older couple's Santa Rosa neighborhood. They are hanging flyers in evacuation centers with photos of the older couple. (AP Photo/Paul Elias)
October 13, 2017 - 10:28 AM

SANTA ROSA, Calif. - Family members have been searching for Ellen and Bob Pearson since they were last seen fleeing their mobile home in California wine country, preparing to leave in their purple Pontiac as flames lurked in the distance.

Five days later, no one has heard from the couple, both in their 70s. Loved ones are growing frustrated with the Sonoma County sheriff's office, where phones lines are busy or out, and with other agencies that seem to have different databases of the missing.

"It's been challenging trying to figure out which agency or which number to call," said the couple's granddaughter, Tiffany Couto. "People are trying to help so much, but it's a chaotic time, and so it's a challenge to understand exactly how to handle this."

Tiffany's sister Chrystal Couto and her husband Aaron Austin drove four hours Thursday from their Humboldt County home to join the search. They distributed flyers of the missing couple at several evacuation centres and plan to do the same Friday. The missing couple was seen leaving their house.

"It's just so weird that no one has heard from them," Chrystal Couto said.

Confusion has marked the disastrous wildfires spanning several counties and cities, adding to the frustration of hundreds of people searching for loved ones. Getting information is disjointed, with the public relying partly on separate media updates throughout the day that are broken out by county and agency.

In Sonoma County, the sheriff's office said Thursday it is searching for missing people and for bodies. Napa County, meanwhile, continued to direct people to search through a website hosted by the American Red Cross.

"It really calls into question a better response," state Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa said about the handling of missing-person reports. "Maybe there's some best practice when we're done with this that we can try to make sure that there is a better clearinghouse."

The Governor's Office of Emergency Services also was directing people to the Red Cross website rather than any state database. Director Mark Ghilarducci said in an interview Thursday that all agencies were co-ordinating well in a large-scale disaster that is going to have "zigs and zags."

"But there is an organization in the chaos, and that's how we are facilitating response to this, that's how we're adding additional resources, that's how we know where to place those resources and to address all the needs in the shelters," he said.

Gov. Jerry Brown has kept a low profile, speaking at one press briefing but otherwise letting state emergency officials take the lead.

"Our focus is on getting resources where they're needed most, not pulling them away for photo ops with the governor," Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said Thursday. Brown will visit some of the fire sites, which have ravaged parts of Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Yuba counties, "when the time is right," he said.

Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, described the Democratic governor as "very engaged in what is going on" and providing support.

Pimlott also said it's the job of local coroners — not the state — to account for the missing and dead.

While authorities focused on evacuations this week, families were left to search on their own. Many turned to social media with plaintive cries for help. They went to hospitals and evacuation centres, hoping their missing loved one was simply lacking a working cellphone or recovering from injuries.

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said about 400 people were on his list of missing people Thursday, although it was unclear how many are duplicates or even people who are actually safe.

Rick and Leslie Howell were some of those found unharmed. Family located the couple Wednesday after they fled their Santa Rosa home in a hurry a day earlier. They do not own mobile phones, which made it difficult to let friends and family know they were safe.

Still missing is Norma Zarr, whose Santa Rosa neighbourhood was evacuated Tuesday evening. None of her family has seen or heard from the 61-year-old woman since.

Charlene Baumunk Allen said sheriff's deputies visited her mother's house Wednesday, finding no damage and no sign of her or her silver Honda CRV.

The sheriff's office has been helpful, says Allen, who lives in Eagle Mountain, Utah.

"I don't know if she's under a rock or if she's OK," she said. "This is a trying time."

Couto said her family reported her grandparents' distinctive purple Pontiac, but she doesn't know whether officers ran the license plate numbers in their search for missing people.

"I'm at a loss, and I'm not sure what steps to take to find them," she said. "We're all confused. We're not sure how to be productive."


Nguyen reported from San Francisco. Associated Press reporters Sudhin Thanawala and Janie Har in San Francisco and Don Thompson in Sacramento also contributed to this report.

News from © The Associated Press, 2017
The Associated Press

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