After the fires, Sonoma, Napa county sheriffs search for dwindling number of missing

Cadaver search dog handler Lynne Engelbert leads her dog Piper out of her car before searching the remains of a home in the Anderson Springs area of a man missing following a wildfire days during the Valley fire in 2015. Engelbert and Piper assisted Curt Nichols of Santa Rosa in finding his parents’ cremains on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017, after their Coffey Park home was destroyed by fire. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)


And then there were 19.

Twelve days after destructive wildfires swept into Sonoma County, scattering the population and prompting 2,150 missing person reports, searchers have narrowed the list, accounting for all but 19 people.

It’s been a painstaking task, occupying teams of detectives who chased down endless leads and sifted through the rubble of incinerated houses from Fountaingrove to Coffey Park.

So far, 23 people have been found dead, including a woman who died in a fire-related car crash.

“We have guys working on it every single day,” Sgt. Spencer Crum, a spokesman for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, said Friday. “They’re making phone calls, checking databases and getting out in the areas, searching for them. It’s an ongoing process.”

Napa County officials said they were still searching for four missing people, down from a peak of 200. Teams have found six people dead so far. A seventh was killed when he crashed a water truck on Oakville Grade.

Many of the initial reports turned out to be people who had moved or were away when the fires hit, Napa County sheriff’s Capt. Steve Blower said.

“Friends you haven’t talked to in years report you missing when in fact you’re on vacation in France,” Blower said.

Authorities in Mendocino County, where eight people died, said hundreds were initially reported missing. Many had lost temporary cellphone contact with loved ones and were later found to be OK, said sheriff’s Capt. Greg Van Patten.

Now, there are no active searches for missing people in that county, Van Patten said.

In Sonoma County, reports come in through a telephone hotline, get logged in a database and are farmed out to detectives who normally investigate murders, domestic violence or property crimes.

They call the reporting person, get details about the floor plan of the missing person’s house and ask if they were capable of getting out.

“The pattern we’re finding is the victims are either elderly or disabled,” Crum said. “We had a few who refused to leave. They wanted to put out the fire and save their houses.”

At some point, detectives go to the house, looking first for signs like scorched cars still parked in driveways. They check obvious places such as bedrooms and cast-iron bathtubs, where victims have been known to flee flames.

If remains are not immediately found, rescue teams of up to 20 people go out and look more closely through the ashes. They use search dogs if thermal imaging shows the debris has cooled.

Often, the extreme heat has left little behind except bits of bone or teeth, Crum said.

The last victim was found Wednesday in his leveled Fountaingrove home.

Over the past few days, authorities have been doing less-targeted searches, instead blanketing burned-out neighborhoods in preparation for their reopenings.

In Coffey Park, for example, police officers canvassed sidewalks and yards, looking for victims who may have been overrun as they fled on foot. National Guard troops followed to make sure no remains were left behind for a family to discover, Crum said.

Crum expressed hope the remaining missing people will be found alive. Fifteen had addresses in Santa Rosa and four were in the unincorporated area of Sonoma County, he said.

In many cases, they were reported by friends or family who hadn’t seen them in years and feared they may have been caught in the blaze.

Their names were not yet released.

Detectives will make a concerted effort to locate them this weekend and publicize their identities early next week, Crum said, adding that they are not releasing names of the missing sooner because they continue to find people.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or