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Hundreds Missing In Northern California Where Fires Continue To Burn


The wildfires in northern California are now the deadliest in that state's history. At least 35 people have died. Entire neighborhoods and thousands of homes have been destroyed. Nearly two dozen fires are still burning largely out of control, and extra fire crews are pouring into the region to help. Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano says hundreds of people are missing.


ROBERT GIORDANO: We have 45 search and rescue people out in the field, 30 detectives right now. And they're starting targeted searches for those locations to try and find those people and recover remains.

SIEGEL: As NPR's Nathan Rott reports, the task of reuniting family and friends with the missing is a tough one.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Holding a stack of makeshift flyers, Crystal Cuto and Aaron Austin walk outside of the Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa. Each piece of paper is printed with the picture of an older couple holding each other and smiling. Finley is one of the nearly three dozen evacuation centers that have been set up here in northern California. They're housing tens of thousands who have been displaced, and they're the places that people go to look for the missing.

Who are you looking for?

AARON AUSTIN: It's Ellen and Bob Pearson.

CRYSTAL CUTO: Yeah. It's my grandma...


CUTO: ...And his grandmother-in-law.

ROTT: Both of them were seen packing up and leaving their home on Monday morning in the hours after the initial firestorm had swept through Santa Rosa, consuming nearly 3,000 homes. They were in an evacuation zone, Cuto says, and they listened.

CUTO: They were planning at the time to go to the veterans' building. But we've checked there and countless other places, and we haven't been able to find them yet.

ROTT: Which is unusual, Cuto says, because she and her grandmother are best friends. They hang out together every Monday and talk even more frequently.

CUTO: So it's definitely really unusual that she hasn't, you know, contacted us, which is part of why I'm taking this extra effort - because it is - you know, it's scary 'cause it - it's getting harder and harder to, like, logic it out of why they haven't contacted us.

ROTT: Cuto is one of many people doing that painful calculation. The fire swept through most of the neighborhoods here Sunday night and Monday. It's now Friday, and the number of people still missing remains shockingly high. There's a hope from emergency workers that many of those people are OK, that they've just been out of contact because of downed cell towers, lost phones and the general chaos. But the Sonoma County sheriff's office has started searching burnt properties with cadaver dogs.


ROTT: Here at the shelter, aid workers are registering people as they walk in to try and help whittle down the list of the missing. A whiteboard is propped up next to the registration table with its own handwritten list. It reads, in search of. Below are long columns of names. In blue marker is the name Mike Grabow.

That's a picture of him.

RACHAEL INGRAHAM: Yeah, that's Mike.

ROTT: Rachael Ingraham has been searching shelters, too, one by one since Monday. She's checked hospitals, police stations. She even drove all the way to the Pacific coast yesterday to search a shelter there, looking for her good friend Mike. They were together on Sunday night at the brewery she works at.

INGRAHAM: We could smell the smoke. He went home, and I got a text from him saying that he knew that it was smoky in his neighborhood. And then that was pretty much blank after that.

ROTT: Mike Grabow's family went to his house the next day, but Ingraham says the house was gone.

INGRAHAM: You can find what's left of it. But yeah, there's nothing. Pretty much that whole neighborhood is like that.

ROTT: Grabow's truck, or what's left of it, is still there.

It's late in the week. I got to ask. I mean, do you think at a certain, like...

INGRAHAM: Yeah. I mean, I think everybody has that in the back of their head. But then there's also the fact that, you know, I still hope, you know? I kind of have to do that in order to get through this.

ROTT: And with hundreds of others also missing, Ingraham knows she's not the only one still searching. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Santa Rosa, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.