In this Nov. 27, 2018, photo, Bill Engfelt poses for a portrait holding the flyer he made while searching for information on his sister, Mirella Harrison, in Solana Beach, Calif. Engfelt and his sister hadn't been in close contact for years when a fire blew through her hometown of Paradise, Calif. After a lengthy search, she was found safe. He's happy to have found his sister, but frustrated at what he felt was a confusing process to locate her. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Some of those 'missing' after California fire are just fine

November 29, 2018 - 2:01 pm
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Dixie Singh is No. 158 on the official list of people missing after Northern California's catastrophic wildfire. That came as news to her.

"I am the only Dixie Singh I've ever heard of. And I am alive," the 86-year-old woman said Wednesday.

Singh's story illustrates the confusion and uncertainty that persist three weeks after the nation's deadliest wildfire in a century ripped through a string of communities with astonishing speed and destruction. But it also offers hope that others listed as unaccounted for will turn up and not be added to the already staggering death toll of 88,

As of Thursday, the number of names on the daily list put out by the Butte County Sheriff's office was 197, down from a high of 1,300 two weeks ago.

The Associated Press found Singh through a public records search that listed a cellphone number for her friend Allan Bates, 84, who was equally puzzled over why she was considered missing when he answered his phone.

"Huh? You're looking for Dixie? You want to talk to her? She's right next to me," he said.

The inferno Nov. 8 all but leveled the town of Paradise, home to 27,000, and ravaged neighboring communities, forcing thousands to flee. As authorities continue combing the charred ruins for human remains and collecting DNA samples from relatives, they are trying to determine who on the list is truly missing.

Many survivors have scattered to other towns or cities and did not think to tell authorities or relatives that they were safe. Many are elderly and may not have cellphones. Some, like Singh, had no idea they were on the ever-evolving roster posted nightly on the sheriff's website.

Singh and Bates fled their home in Paradise, driving down flaming roads as they heard explosions and got stuck in traffic.

"Hell could not have been any worse. It was terrible, terrible, terrible," said Singh, speaking from an apartment the couple is now renting in nearby Chico. Both said they had told friends and family members that they made it out safely, and Singh did not know why her name had been put on the list.

Another person not missing is Terumi Newton, No. 109.

Her former daughter-in-law, Marge Newton, lives 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) away in Birch Bay, Washington, and had been exchanging regular phone calls with investigators and law enforcement officials on the ground.

After weeks of searching, she got a call Wednesday saying her 82-year-old former mother-in-law was safe. The call was not from sheriff's authorities but from a Red Cross worker who told her the elderly woman had checked in at a shelter at a church in Chico on the day the fire started.

"She signed in on the 8th, on the same day of the evacuation, but nobody forwarded the list to the sheriff's office," said Newton, who expressed frustration at the oversight but also empathy for first responders dealing with a disaster of such magnitude. Overall, she felt relief, she said.

"Now, I can call off my search," she said. "In the end, people on that list are safe and well, and that's what matters."

Newton was not on the updated list released Thursday.

Sheriff's authorities have faced criticism over spotty communication with outside agencies aiding the relief effort but insist they are constantly cross-checking names of survivors.

"We've interfaced with the Red Cross," Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said last week. "Not only are they checking it, we double-check with them. That's an ongoing process because people come in and they go out."

Honea has repeatedly called the list "fluid" and "dynamic," saying his office is adding names whenever someone is reported unaccounted for. If someone calls in and reports a friend or relative who lived in Paradise can't be reached, the person is added to the list until tracked down by authorities.

Sometimes a name is removed, only to be added again when someone else inquires about that person. Sometimes a name is misspelled and appears twice under different spellings.

That was the case with Mirella Harrison of Paradise, who first appeared on the list Nov. 15 as Marilla Harrison. Over the next 11 days, her name also appeared as Mallela and Marrcela. Sometimes she was listed twice with correct and incorrect spellings.

Her brother, Bill Engfelt, couldn't reach her and reported her missing.

Someone from the sheriff's office called him every day to check in but had no answers. Engfelt, who lives in San Diego, bought a plane ticket to Sacramento and planned to drive to Paradise and distribute flyers with her picture and give authorities a DNA swab on the chance his sister's remains were found.

But then on Monday, he learned she was safe. She was in a hotel room in Vacaville, 120 miles (190 kilometers) south of Paradise.

"She should have called me days ago," Engfelt said. The confirmation came not through official channels but from his sister's real estate agent, one of many people Engfelt called as he tried to locate her.

Confusion is common in the aftermath of disasters. In last year's Northern California wine country wildfires, Sonoma County authorities at one point listed more than 2,000 people as missing but slowly whittled down the number. In the end, 44 people died in the series of fires in several California counties.

The enormity of the disaster this time is far greater. The Camp Fire destroyed nearly 19,000 structures, compared with 5,600 in Napa and Sonoma Counties last year. It spread across 240 square miles (620 square kilometers), an area five times the size of San Francisco.

Many people searching for loved ones have found help through social media, like Delisa Gaeta, one of many who posted messages to a Facebook group called Camp Fire Missing Persons.

"I went to that Facebook page and yelled out, 'Is Dale Wingett still alive?' and people just grabbed on," said Gaeta, who also called the sheriff's office to report her foster father missing.

For 2½ weeks, she heard nothing and was starting to think the worst. On Monday, good news arrived via Facebook message from a friend who forwarded her a story in the Redding Record Searchlight newspaper. It had a photograph of a man named Dale Wingett, smiling as he filled his plate at a Thanksgiving buffet for survivors at a Holiday Inn in Redding.

"I couldn't believe it. There he was at the Holiday Inn eating turkey!" said Gaeta, 55, of Santa Clara.

Only the day before, Sunday, the sheriff's office called her to say officials still had no information on Wingett's whereabouts but could confirm that his house burned down.

Gaeta said her mind is now at ease, but she is still trying to find Wingett and talk with him.

"It's not over until I can speak to him and know if there is anything I can do to help," she said.

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Associated Press writers Juliet Linderman, Janie Har and Sudhin Thanawala in San Francisco and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento, California, contributed to this report.

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