The Tubbs Fire raging in Northern California has leveled one Santa Rosa neighborhood and left many other areas devastated. Video produced by Emily Zentner
The Tubbs Fire raging in Northern California has leveled one Santa Rosa neighborhood and left many other areas devastated. Video produced by Emily Zentner

Local

Families search for people still missing after wine country fires

By Anita Chabria And Ryan Lillis

achabria@sacbee.com

October 19, 2017 03:55 AM

UPDATED October 19, 2017 11:13 AM

Alicia Bartholemew still can’t find her son.

Ten days after fires decimated homes and lives across Northern California, Dylan Adcock, 26, remains missing. His cellphone goes straight to voicemail and his mother, in Montana, can’t sleep for the fear and uncertainty.

“I didn’t hear from him for a couple of months because he was mad at me about something, which makes it that much worse for me,” she said. “Before we were best of friends, and I was so proud of him and he’s such a nice young man.”

Adcock has Asperger’s syndrome and was living out of his father’s van somewhere in Santa Rosa, his mom isn’t sure where. He told her he was working on a ranch, but she doesn’t know the name of the place.

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Wednesday, his bank said his account had been active in the last few days, giving her enough hope to get some rest.

Adcock and 53 other people remain officially missing in Sonoma and Napa counties following the deadliest series of wildfires in California history, prompting both authorities and families into continue anxious efforts to locate them. While cadaver dogs methodically search neighborhoods like Coffey Park, relatives and friends are sticking to more hopeful hunts on social media, and in locations like shelters and hospitals.

Numerous online sites have gone up in recent days with pleas for information and assistance to find missing loved ones, and Good Samaritans have responded with leads and offers to be boots on the ground for those out of the area.

Many of those who have not been accounted for in wine country are believed to be elderly or homeless, according to Sonoma authorities. They can be hard to find because they often lack cellphones, computers and sometimes even the savvy – or desire – to make contact with loved ones in tough conditions.

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said 50 people are officially reported missing in Sonoma County – half of those in the city of Santa Rosa. In Napa, the count dropped from five to three by Wednesday evening. There are no more officially missing people in Yuba and Nevada counties, where the fires have been controlled and people have returned to most evacuated areas.

Some of the searches are paying off.

Charlene Allen found her mom, Norma Zarr, on Friday.

Zarr was evacuated from her Bennett Valley home Tuesday and her family lost contact. For days, Allen posted on social media sites, called evacuation centers and even sent police unsuccessfully to Zarr’s home, which didn’t burn.

“My brother and my sister were really freaking out,” said Allen. Their aunt’s home had been destroyed and Allen’s sister’s had come close.

A friend of Allen’s managed to speak with Zarr’s roommate, who said the 61-year-old had made it safely out of the fire on Tuesday. But it wasn’t until past 1 a.m. three days later that Allen’s brother finally received a call from Zarr.

She had been spotted in the parking lot of the local Walmart by someone who had seen her photo online and told Zarr her family was worried. Allen said she wasn’t surprised to learn her mom, whom she described as a night owl, was out so late, or that she had failed to get in touch.

“Mostly she is a survivor type, and so she pretty much only thinks of her safety,” said Allen. “She felt quite embarrassed that everyone was fussing over her.”

Jim Ledbetter is also searching for an elderly relative – his brother, Dennis Ledbetter, 75, who lived near Coffey Park. Dennis is 10 years older than Jim, and registered with an evacuation center on Oct. 10. But he hasn’t been heard from since. A woman Ledbetter met via a missing person’s page volunteered Wednesday to go search the center for him, but the younger Ledbetter hadn’t heard back from her.

Jim thinks his big brother might not have his cellphone, and wouldn’t know any numbers if he got a new one.

“We’ll just keep trying different avenues,” he said. His brother is an avid builder of model ships. Jim managed to track down the Santa Rosa store where he bought the kits, and they promised to call if they saw him.

“I just lucked (out) on the shop that special ordered them for him and they knew exactly who I was talking about,” he said.

He also knows his brother went to a local coffee shop every morning, and plans to start calling over there in the hopes his brother, whom he describes as “meticulous,” would go back to his old routines.

For some, there is no such trail to follow.

Sandra Arevalo is looking for her transient uncle, Fernando Rodriguez, but has few places to start.

Arevalo hasn’t yet filed a formal missing persons report because Rodriguez, 51, has been known to go a few months without contacting his family. She last saw him in late August.

Rodriguez usually stayed around Glen Ellen, which was evacuated, often sleeping under a bridge there. Rodriquez is “funny” and “kind,” smokes marijuana, and “just likes to live his life the way he wants to live it,” she said. He has no phone but regularly turns up at Arevalo’s mother’s house.

Now Arevalo’s mom is worried about her brother. She posted his photo on a social media page for Tubbs Fire missing people, and a woman contacted her a few nights ago saying she was certain she’d seen him in Santa Rosa. Arevalo has been driving around the area with no luck.

“He could just be anywhere around Santa Rosa,” she said. “With all this going on, it’s a little more pressing where we should try to go look for him.”

Police officers, sheriff’s deputies and 250 search and rescue volunteers are spreading throughout Sonoma County “searching every place that burned” and conducting “targeted searches” for people reported missing, Giordano said. At least 43 people have died in the series of fires that have struck Northern California since last week.

Giordano said the death toll in the county rose Wednesday by one, to 23. Two victims killed in the fires also were identified as 81-year-old Monte Neil Kirven of Santa Rosa and Marilyn Carol Ress, 71, of Santa Rosa.

Friends posted remembrances on social media describing Kirven as an accomplished biologist and defender of peregrine falcons from environmental hazards. A comment left at the end of an article about Kirven’s experience with falcons in Mendocino County said the Santa Rosa resident had entertained guests at his home just hours before the Tubbs Fire raced through his neighborhood. The friend who wrote the comment, Brian Wilson, wrote that Kirven’s falcon also died in the fires.

“It’s unfortunate we keep adding people to the list (of fatalities),” Giordano said. “It’s not going away, we’re going to be dealing with it for months and years.”

Digging through the ashes near Coffey Park

Chris Bipes, his wife, Kim, and his neighbor, Craig Lowry, dig through the ashes of his home near Coffey Park in hopes of finding valuables such as his coin collection and other items on Monday in Santa Rosa.

Randy Pench The Sacramento Bee

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa