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Chaos, lack of communication amid California wildfires frustrates families of missing

| Friday, Oct. 13, 2017, 10:18 a.m.
A swimming pool lies among the charred remains of a home destroyed by wildfires in Santa Rosa, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. Gusting winds and dry air forecast for Thursday could drive the next wave of devastating wildfires that are already well on their way to becoming the deadliest and most destructive in California history. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
A swimming pool lies among the charred remains of a home destroyed by wildfires in Santa Rosa, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. Gusting winds and dry air forecast for Thursday could drive the next wave of devastating wildfires that are already well on their way to becoming the deadliest and most destructive in California history. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
In this Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, aerial photo provided by George Rose shows a lush vineyard, left, next to a scorched wasteland near Vintners Inn, just north of Coffey Park, Sonoma County near Santa Rosa, Calif. Officials say progress is being made in some of the largest wildfires burning in Northern California but that the death toll is almost sure to surge. (George Rose/Georgerose.com via AP)
In this Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, aerial photo provided by George Rose shows a lush vineyard, left, next to a scorched wasteland near Vintners Inn, just north of Coffey Park, Sonoma County near Santa Rosa, Calif. Officials say progress is being made in some of the largest wildfires burning in Northern California but that the death toll is almost sure to surge. (George Rose/Georgerose.com via AP)

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Family members have been searching for Ellen and Bob Pearson since they were last seen evacuating their mobile home in California wine country, preparing to leave in their purple Pontiac as flames lurked in the distance.

Five days later, no one has heard from the couple, both in their 70s. Loved ones are growing frustrated with the Sonoma County sheriff's office, where phones lines are busy or out, and with other agencies that seem to have different databases of the missing.

“It's been challenging trying to figure out which agency or which number to call,” said Tiffany Couto, who was raised by a grandmother who always checks in. “People are trying to help so much, but it's a chaotic time, and so it's a challenge to understand exactly how to handle this.”

Confusion has marked the disastrous wildfires spanning several counties and cities, adding to the frustration of hundreds of people searching for loved ones. Getting information is disjointed, with the public relying partly on separate media updates throughout the day that are broken out by county and agency.

In Sonoma County, the sheriff's office said Thursday it is searching for missing people and for bodies. Napa County, meanwhile, continued to direct people to search through a website hosted by the American Red Cross.

“It really calls into question a better response,” state Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa said about the handling of missing-person reports. “Maybe there's some best practice when we're done with this that we can try to make sure that there is a better clearinghouse.”

The Governor's Office of Emergency Services also was directing people to the Red Cross website rather than any state database. Director Mark Ghilarducci said in an interview Thursday that all agencies were coordinating well in a large-scale disaster that is going to have “zigs and zags.”

“But there is an organization in the chaos, and that's how we are facilitating response to this, that's how we're adding additional resources, that's how we know where to place those resources and to address all the needs in the shelters,” he said.

Gov. Jerry Brown has kept a low profile, speaking at one press briefing but otherwise letting state emergency officials take the lead.

Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, described the Democratic governor as “very engaged in what is going on” and providing support.

Pimlott also said it's the job of local coroners — not the state — to account for the missing and dead.

While authorities focused on evacuations this week, families were left to search on their own. Many turned to social media with plaintive cries for help. They went to hospitals and evacuation centers, hoping their missing loved one was simply lacking a working cellphone or recovering from injuries.

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said about 400 people were on his list of missing people Thursday, although it was unclear how many are duplicates or even people who are actually safe.

Rick and Leslie Howell were some of those found unharmed. Family located the couple Wednesday after they fled their Santa Rosa home in a hurry a day earlier. They do not own mobile phones, which made it difficult to let friends and family know they were safe.

Still missing is Norma Zarr, whose Santa Rosa neighborhood was evacuated Tuesday evening. None of her family has seen or heard from the 61-year-old woman since.

Charlene Baumunk Allen said sheriff's deputies visited her mother's house Wednesday, finding no damage and no sign of her or her silver Honda CRV.

The sheriff's office has been helpful, says Allen, who lives in Eagle Mountain, Utah.

“I don't know if she's under a rock or if she's OK,” she said. “This is a trying time.”

Couto, the Pearsons' granddaughter, said her family reported her grandparents' distinctive purple Pontiac, but she doesn't know whether officers ran the license plate numbers in their search for missing people.

“I'm at a loss, and I'm not sure what steps to take to find them,” she said. “We're all confused. We're not sure how to be productive.”

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