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Hundreds Missing Amid California Wildfires; Loved Ones Go Online

The blazes killed at least 21 people and destroyed an estimated 3,500 homes and businesses, many of them in California wine country

Luke Baier (left) and his wife Gina Baier look through the remains of their home in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, Calif., on Tuesday.

Friends and relatives desperately checked hospitals and shelters and pleaded on social media for help finding loved ones missing amid California’s wildfires, with hundreds of people unaccounted for Wednesday.

Robert Tunis picked through the debris where his mother’s house once stood at Journey’s End mobile home park in Santa Rosa, searching for clues to what happened to her. Linda Tunis, 69, talked to her daughter from her burning home on Monday, saying “I’m going to die” before the phone went dead.

“We’ve been to 17 evacuation centers. We’ve called probably 12 hospitals. I mean, my whole family, all my friends looking for her,” daughter Jessica Tunis said. “I hope someone got her in time and she can’t tell people who she is. Please just help me. If you’ve seen her, please call me.”

As of Wednesday, 22 wildfires were burning in Northern California, up from 17 the day before. The blazes killed at least 21 people and destroyed an estimated 3,500 homes and businesses, many of them in California wine country.

How many people were missing was unclear, and officials said the lists could include duplicated names and people who are safe but haven’t told anyone, whether because of the general confusion or because cellphone service is out across wide areas.

“We get calls and people searching for lost folks and they’re not lost, they’re just staying with somebody and we don’t know where it is,” said Napa County Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht.

With many fires still raging out of control, authorities said locating the missing was not their priority.

“We are not switching operations to anything but lifesaving right now. It’s all about lifesaving and evacuations,” said Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano, who put the number of people unaccounted for in the hard-hit county at 380.

As a result, many people turned to social media, posting pleas such as “Looking for my Grandpa Robert,” ″We are looking for our mother Norma” or “I can’t find my mom.” It is an increasingly familiar practice that was seen after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and the Las Vegas massacre.

A sobbing Rachael Ingram searched shelters and called hospitals to try to find her friend Mike Grabow, whose home in Santa Rosa was destroyed. She plastered social media with photos of the bearded man as she drove up and down Highway 101 in her pickup.

Privacy rules, she said, prevented shelters from releasing information.

“You can only really leave notes and just try and send essentially a message in a bottle,” she said.

Ingram said she hopes Grabow is simply without a phone or cell service.

“I’ve heard stories of people being relocated to San Francisco and Oakland. I’m hoping for something like that,” she said. “We’re hearing the worst and expecting the best.”

Frances Dinkelspiel, a journalist in Berkeley, turned to social media for help finding her stepbrother Jim Conley after tweeting authorities and getting little help. But it was a round of telephone calls ultimately that led her to him.

A Santa Rosa hospital initially said it had no record of him, but when the family tried again, it was told he had been transferred elsewhere with serious burns. It was a frustrating experience, Dinkelspiel said, but “I’m glad he’s in a hospital and isn’t lying injured on the side of the road.”

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This story has been corrected to show that people used social media to search for missing after Hurricane Irma, not Rita.

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AP reporter Andrew Dalton contributed from San Francisco.

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