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Number Of Missing Climbs In Deadly California Wildfire


President Trump visited California today to see damage caused by the wildfires. The death toll continues to grow. According to the latest figures, at least 71 people have died. And the list of individuals unaccounted for has grown dramatically. NPR's Tom Goldman reports the county sheriff overseeing search and rescue efforts is trying to tamp down possible alarm about the surging numbers.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Roman Digby's 78-year-old dad, John, died in Northern California's Camp Fire. Roman says the call this week from the coroner ended a gnawing uncertainty.

ROMAN DIGBY: Obviously, I wish that he hadn't passed away. But not knowing if he was out there somewhere needing help or if he had passed away - just the not knowing was terrible.

GOLDMAN: But, for so many others, that uncertainty hangs over them like the oppressive blanket of smoke that still envelops Butte County and beyond. In the past few days, the number of missing and unaccounted for has skyrocketed from about a hundred to more than 1,000.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If you have questions or want to do a report on missing persons, they're right here.

GOLDMAN: Late this week, authorities transformed the former Sears store at the Chico mall into an assistance center for fire survivors. Two long tables were set up next to each other with signs reading missing persons, DNA. People could walk up and arrange for DNA swabs to help identify possible family members' remains. Or they could provide needed information about the growing list of missing. Gary McGrath (ph), on crutches, approached the tables, perhaps with good news.

GARY MCGRATH: My cousin is listed as missing. At least, I think it's him. It's just the misspelled name.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And you've been in touch with him?

MCGRATH: Yes, I have.


MCGRATH: And his wife.

GOLDMAN: McGrath lives in Magalia, a foothill town next to Paradise. Paradise was almost completely destroyed. He hasn't been back to his house yet, but he thinks it's still standing. McGrath tears up, saying he feels guilty about that. Reporting his cousin helps.

GOLDMAN: If I can get one person off that list, it'd make me feel good. I wish I could get all of them off.

GOLDMAN: As that list has grown, so have speculation and concern that many of the people on it will end up on the list of those who died. And it's why, last night, Butte County sheriff Kory Honea calmly but firmly pleaded with reporters.

KORY HONEA: I've been very upfront, right, with how difficult this situation is and how grave it is. But I don't think it's appropriate for me to speculate on the ultimate gravity of it, which is why I released the numbers with the information that I have and hoping that you'll provide the appropriate context.

MCGRATH: Honea says the list is dynamic, and it'll fluctuate every day. He says the numbers have jumped because officials now are able to process more calls and emails reporting missing people. And more data is being reviewed from the emergency calls in the first chaotic moments when the fire erupted 10 days ago. Honea adds, it's quite possible the list contains duplicate names, and he defended his decision to keep putting out what he calls the raw data.

HONEA: I can't let perfection get in the way of progress. It's important for us to get the information out so that we can get started on identifying these unaccounted individuals.

GOLDMAN: Honea was asked whether we'll ever know precisely how many people died. He says, that's within the realm of possibility - adding, it's the nature of a tragedy like this.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Chico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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