AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A massive wildfire continues to burn in Northern California as hundreds of people search for missing relatives and friends. At least 77 people are dead, nearly a thousand unaccounted for, though that last figure has fluctuated. In a few minutes, we'll talk about what's behind the growing fury of these fires and what policymakers might do.
But first, NPR's Leila Fadel has this report on search and rescue teams in the city of Paradise and families still hoping to find loved ones alive. A warning - some of the details in this story may be upsetting.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO CHATTER)
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: In Paradise, Calif., teams of volunteers in white hazmat suits, gray boots and masks dig through the black ash of one incinerated home after the next.
FADEL: Sergeant Greg McKenzie of the Placer County Sheriff's Office examines a map of the area. He's been searching since the day after the fire erupted on November 8.
GREG MCKENZIE: We are looking for human remains with the intent of recovering those people before we repopulate the area, and they're not discovered later. Also, that brings the obvious closure to the family and an answer for the missing people that are out there.
FADEL: There are hundreds and hundreds of people still missing. The families hope to find them alive and safe, but McKenzie's team's job right now is to find the dead.
MCKENZIE: The fire came through so quickly that many people weren't even out of bed. When this fire started at, I think, 6:45 in the morning, there was a lot of - this is an elderly community, so a lot of people were still in bed.
So they're being found in their bed. They're being found in their recliners. They're being found in the bathtubs, the cars trying to escape - any place of refuge that somebody would go to try to escape this wall of flame.
FADEL: That's where the teams are searching. And while McKenzie has searched for the dead, for the missing before, this time, this scale, this many dead is different.
MCKENZIE: When we - you sit here and you think about the chaos that these people went through - that, to me, is what's tough. You know, we - for Day 1, we found two people in a car. And I can't imagine what those people went through at their last moments. So I think that's what bothers me more than anything.
FADEL: He says the teams he's overseeing - their job is to give families closure. But with this level of destruction, some people might never be found, never be identified.
At a local Red Cross shelter in nearby Chico, Calif., west of Paradise, a haphazard list of scrawled out names and phone numbers is posted on a message board. One note says, Sharon Santos, call your kids. Many of the missing are elderly.
And the sheriff of Butte County has warned that this list is fluid - that there could be duplicate names, misspellings, people who are safe and just don't know they're on the missing list. But John Kelly and his wife Brittany, evacuees at the shelter, fear the worst.
JOHN KELLY: People don't just go missing for, you know, over two weeks or, you know, a little under two weeks and nobody can find them. We're in a small community. Like, everybody knows everybody.
FADEL: He says he and his wife are sure the list of the dead will grow, especially because so many of the unaccounted for are elderly and would have needed help to escape.
BRITTANY KELLY: I think about - I don't know how they would have - you know, I pray - it's sad. I pray that they did make it.
J KELLY: But, I mean, if they did, where would they be at, you know? There's only a couple shelters, and everybody's accounted for at the shelters.
FADEL: And a list of the missing is still so long.
Chrissy Mulinax searched for her grandparents and her mother from where she lives in Tennessee. She found her grandparents but couldn't find her mom, Sharon. She posted on Facebook, called shelters and the Butte County Sheriff's Office over and over again. She searched for airfares at prices she can't afford over the holidays. I reached her by Skype.
CHRISSY MULINAX: It's like you're in a nightmare and you can't wake up. That's literally what it feels like.
FADEL: Last night, someone saw Chrissy's post online and told her that they'd found her mother safe at a shelter. Sharon Mulinax is alive, but there are so many others whose fates are still unknown. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Chico, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.