Even establishing a decent estimate of the unaccounted-for has proved too difficult, with authorities citing wildly disparate figures within a single day Wednesday, though all were in the hundreds.
Some of the missing are only struggling to reach loved ones because of communication problems. Others have been counted twice, inflating the numbers.
“We get calls and people searching for lost folks and they’re not lost, they’re just staying with somebody and we don’t know where it is,” said Napa County Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht.
WATCH: Drone video captures devastation left behind by California wildfires
But authorities say others will almost certainly be added to the death toll, now at 23.
Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said his investigators were beginning to work the missing-persons cases one at a time, but they’re limited to looking in the “cold zones” they could reach.
With many fires still raging out of control, authorities said locating the missing was not their top priority.
“We can only get so many places and we have only so many people to work on so many things,” he said. “When you are working on evacuations, those are our first priority in resources.”
As a result, friends and relatives turned to social media, posting pleas such as “Looking for my Grandpa Robert,” “We are looking for our mother Norma” or “I can’t find my mom.” It is an increasingly familiar practice that was seen after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and the Las Vegas massacre.
Frances Dinkelspiel, a journalist in Berkeley, turned to social media for help finding her stepbrother Jim Conley after tweeting authorities and getting little help. But it was a round of telephone calls that ultimately led her to him.
WATCH: Massive plumes of smoke from wildfires seen rising above California
A Santa Rosa hospital initially said it had no record of him, but when the family tried again, it was told he had been transferred elsewhere with serious burns.
It was a frustrating experience, Dinkelspiel said, but “I’m glad he’s in a hospital and isn’t lying injured on the side of the road.”
Dozens of names are on a dry erase board at the Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa, which the Red Cross had turned into an evacuation centre with dormitories, cold showers and three meals a day. Dozens of evacuees hung about, waiting for word for when they could return to their homes.
Debbie Short, an evacuee staying at the Finley Center, was a good example of a person listed as missing who was not. She was walking past the dry erase board when she noticed her name on the board, likely because a friend had been looking for her.
A Red Cross volunteer erased her name from the board.
A sobbing Rachael Ingram searched shelters and called hospitals to try to find her friend Mike Grabow, whose home in Santa Rosa was destroyed. She plastered social media with photos of the bearded man as she drove up and down Highway 101 in her pickup.
Privacy rules, she said, prevented shelters from releasing information.
“You can only really leave notes and just try and send essentially a message in a bottle,” she said.
Ingram said she hopes Grabow is simply without a phone or cell service.
“We’re hearing the worst and expecting the best,” she said.
© 2017 The Canadian Press