On Friday morning, days after wildfires overtook Butte County, California, relatives of 49-year-old Kelly Burke were frantically searching for her and spreading the word that she was missing on social media. One neighbor in the woods near her town, Berry Creek, claimed to see Burke evacuate with friends, but no one could reach her.
“Living in Idaho and not being able to search for mom is killing me,” Burke’s daughter Chelsea Vonarmfelt wrote on Facebook.
The next morning, Vonarmfelt began a long drive from Boise, intent on finding Burke, who’d vanished after the North Complex fire leveled her rural community of about 1,200 people. The flames destroyed Burke’s house, where she lived with her boyfriend and a roommate.
“We don’t know where the heck she is,” Burke’s sister, Kimberly Rancour Follettie, told The Daily Beast on Friday morning.
“She has four children and a bunch of grandchildren,” Follettie added. “She hasn’t even called my mother, and she talks to her every day on the phone.”
Burke was one of at least 16 people to go missing in Butte County, where officials said a “massive wall of fire” decimated “everything in its path,” just like the 2018 Camp Fire—among the deadliest in U.S. history. That conflagration razed Paradise, another foothills town in Butte County, and killed 85 people.
On Thursday, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office said it received 124 calls for welfare checks, and that 98 people were located, 16 were unaccounted for, and 10 were presumed dead, according to KCRA, an NBC affiliate in Sacramento. The agency said it would provide an update at a press conference at 6 p.m. local time.
By Friday afternoon, Burke’s family announced she’d been safely located at an Oroville hospital. Vonarmfelt told The Daily Beast from the road that Burke was found in an emergency room, where she’d been admitted for stomach pains, and wasn’t burned or harmed from the blaze.
“I am very relieved,” Follettie added. “I have been so on edge these last few days. I have only FaceTimed with her [from the hospital] but it was great to see her face.”
Some area families weren’t so lucky. County authorities discovered the remains of 10 people—including 16-year-old Josiah Williams—in the wake of the destruction.
Williams’ mother, Jessica, told CBS13 she was devastated her son, who was last seen in Berry Creek and whose car was unscathed, died by himself in the fires. “He was alone, terrified and ran for his life,” Jessica said, adding, “My son was a good, smart, caring young boy that died alone and it kills me thinking about what he was going through.”
Others continued to hold out hope for their missing relatives.
Sandy and John Butler called their son and told him they planned to climb a fence and take shelter in a pond, but no one has heard from the couple since.
“We’re still hoping and praying for good news,” one relative, Jessica Fallon, told the AP. Fallon has two children with the Butlers’ grandson and considers the couple her family, too.
“Everything is replaceable,” Fallon added, “but not my grandparents’ lives. I’d rather lose everything than those two. They kind of held the family together.”
In Washington, more than 626,000 acres had burned from 14 large, active fires as the state grappled with poor air quality. On Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee said the blazes had created the second-worst fire season in state history. As The Daily Beast previously reported, a 1-year-old child was killed and his parents injured in a conflagration in Okanogan County, and fires destroyed more than three-quarters of the town of Malden.
Meanwhile, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced dozens of people were missing in her state, where firefighters battled two large blazes Friday.
Andrew Phelps, the Director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, said the state was preparing for a “mass fatality incident” based on fires that burned more than 1 million acres this week and destroyed thousands of structures.
At least three people were reported dead in Oregon, including 13-year-old Wyatt Tofte, who lived near Lyons and was killed when he took shelter in his family’s car. The boy’s dog, a 200-pound bullmastiff mix named Duke, was found dead beside him. Wyatt’s grandmother, 71-year-old Peggy Mosso, also died in the blaze, while his mother, Angela, was hospitalized with burns and in critical condition.
The family had woken in the middle of the night to their house on fire, according to a heartbreaking account published in the Salem Statesman Journal. Peggy, who’d recently broken her leg, couldn’t get out. Angela told Wyatt and Duke to make a run for it.
At the time, Angela’s husband, Chris Tofte, was getting a trailer from a friend in preparation for evacuation orders. But when he got home, his family was gone. Chris happened upon his wife en route to his house and didn’t even recognize her because of the burns.
Roger Tofte, Chris’s grandfather and owner of the Enchanted Forest theme park, told The Oregonian his family was shattered by the loss.
“We’re all just kind of devastated and can’t seem to get it out of our minds, what happened,” 90-year-old Roger said.
His daughter, Susan Vaslev, added, “It’s just a horror.”
Read more at The Daily Beast.
Video: Entire towns destroyed, death toll rises as West Coast wildfires spread (NBC News)