California fire updates: Death toll rises to 5 in Butte, Valley fires
Sep 17, 2015 | 4:31 PM
Valley fire (as of Friday, 7 a.m.)
73,700 acres burned
13,000 people displaced
7,473 homes threatened
585 homes, hundreds of other buildings destroyed
4,096 fire workers
4 injured firefighters
3 confirmed deaths
Butte fire (as of Friday, 7 a.m.)
70,760 acres burned
10,000 people initially displaced
6,400 structures threatened
365 homes, 261 outbuildings destroyed
4,327 fire workers
2 confirmed deaths
Fresno County's Rough fire is 15th-largest wildfire ever in California
See list below of the top 20 largest wildfires in California history. It includes statistics for the acreage, structures destroyed and the number of fatalities.
Wildfire victims eligible for state tax relief
Taxpayers affected by wildfires in Amador, Calaveras, Lake and Napa counties will automatically qualify for tax relief when they file their returns, officials at the California Franchise Tax Board announced Thursday.
Special tax rules apply to disaster losses, the agency said in a statement.
Evacuees living in tents warned to prepare for change in weather
Weather service officials are advising residents forced from their homes and living in tent camps because of the Butte and Valley fires to prepare for a change in the weather this weekend as the thermometer gets ready to spike again.
"We're looking at temperatures going into the mid-90s over the area," said Nathan Owen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.
Officials suggested that those living in tents place their shelter in a shady area, use portable, battery-operated fans and drink plenty of water.
"The main thing for evacuees and emergency services [personnel] is to stay hydrated," Owen said.
The warmer weather was expected to continue into Monday, with temperatures dropping back into the mid- to upper 80s by Tuesday or Wednesday, Owen said.
Authorities planned to host a community meeting in Calistoga on Thursday evening to provide an update on operations pertaining to the Valley fire and field questions from community members.
Battalion Chief Hugo Patino, a spokesman for Cal Fire, said an undetermined number of evacuees had already been allowed to return home. Residents are encouraged to heed safety tips from fire officials before heading to their properties.
Fire officials investigate whether tree branch sparked Butte fire
Officials are investigating whether a tree branch that came into contact with a phone line may have caused the Butte fire.
Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant told reporters Thursday that crews working with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. were looking into the branch scenario as reason behind the the blaze that has claimed two lives.
Both of those found dead in the fire were in evacuation areas "and did not heed those warnings," Berlant said.
Officials said the body of Mark McCloud, 66, was discovered Tuesday outside his home on Baker Riley Road in Mountain Ranch. Cadaver dogs also discovered the body of another person, an adult male, in the M-24 subdivision of Mountain Ranch, officials said.
Rainy weather in the area has helped douse the fire, which is now 49% contained, but Berlant warned that "we cannot become complacent ... we could see some flare-ups as temps go up."
The number of victims from massive wildfires raking Northern California has grown to five, with two more bodies recovered in the Valley Fire on Wednesday, Lake County sheriff's officials said.
One of the bodies, found in the Anderson Springs area, is presumed to be that of Leonard Neft, a 69-year-old former newspaper reporter, who had told his family by telephone that he would try to escape his Anderson Springs home by driving to a side road and hiking out. His charred car was found three days later.
The second body was found in the Hidden Valley area. Based on the location, the sheriff's department said, it was presumed to be that of Bruce Beven Burns, who was reported missing two days ago. According to a business website run by his wife, Burns was from a family that had homesteaded the area in the mid-1800s.
Officials release details on alleged Valley fire looter
Lake County law enforcement officials have released more information on one of three people arrested for entering the Valley fire disaster zone.
Steven Worley, 36, was discovered off Highway 175 in Cobb Mountain on Monday. The area is closed to the public with active fires, downed power lines and empty homes.
According to a press release from the Lake County Sheriff's Department on Wednesday, a deputy recognized Worley from "prior law enforcement contacts" and began pursuit as Worley tried to speed away. The deputy said he found Worley wearing a yellow rain jacket - similar from a distance to the yellow fire-resistant garb emergency crews wear - and a red baseball cap with a California Highway Patrol logo.
Inside Worley's car, the deputy found computer and cellular devices, a scorched wallet belonging to someone else, and a locked safe, as well as 13 obsidian points (archaeological artifacts), authorities said.
Worley has been charged with petty theft during an emergency, with impersonating an officer and with removal of an archaeological artifact.
Looting is a growing problem in the evacuated communities as crews of firefighters and utility workers deal with the still-dangerous Valley fire. At least three arrests have been made.
The Calaveras County coroner on Wednesday confirmed that the raging Butte fire had killed two people.
The body of Mark McCloud, 66, was discovered Tuesday outside his home on Baker Riley Road in Mountain Ranch, said Calaveras County Coroner Kevin Raggio. He "refused to leave the scene, and his home was overcome by the fire," Raggio said.
Raggio said an autopsy had been performed and that the cause of death was thermal injury. "He was definitely killed by the fire," he said.
Another person, an adult male, was also found on Tuesday by cadaver dogs in the M-24 subdivision of Mountain Ranch, Raggio said. That man, whose name and age have not been released, also refused to leave as the fire spread, and his residence was destroyed, Raggio said.
The Butte fire deaths bring to three the number of people killed by California wildfires this week. Earlier this week, the body of a 72-year-old disabled woman was found in the Valley fire debris in Lake County.
A second person has been confirmed dead in California's violent wildfires this week, Cal Fire officials announced.
Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for Cal Fire, announced the death, a result of injuries sustained in the Butte fire in Gold County, on Twitter, saying Calaveras County Sheriff's officials would release more information later.
Earlier this week, Lake County Sheriff's officials confirmed a death in the fast-moving Valley fire. Officials believe the fatality was a disabled woman who was "unable to self-evacuate."
Looting a problem with thousands evacuated in fire, officials say
Looting is a growing problem in evacuated communities as crews of firefighters and utility workers deal with the still-dangerous Valley fire.
Law enforcement teams encountered looters through the night, officers were told during a Wednesday morning briefing.
Lt. Steve Brooks, a Lake County sheriff's spokesman, said at least one arrest had been made. He expected to release details shortly.
According to the Lake County jail log, a 60-year-old man from Clearlake Oaks was arrested after venturing past manned blockades late Tuesday. He was booked and charged with impersonating an officer and was also carrying a concealed weapon, according to the log.
Officials are allowing residents back into areas north of California 29 with address verification, said Sheriff Brian Martin.
But farther south, the fire remained too hot and downed power lines made the area too dangerous. The department will continue to escort residents to homes there to check on pets and animals left behind and to collect some belongings.
David Mecchi, a bulldozer contractor, follows wildfires across the state, helping with the massive cleanup of rubble and debris after large blazes.
At most of them, he's able to add to an odd and growing collection of unexpected fire mementos: T-shirts to commemorate the disasters.
Mecchi, who lives in Mariposa, says he's been to dozens of fires, and at nearly every one, he finds vendors who travel from fire to fire, selling T-shirts, long-sleeved shirts and sweatshirts. They don't come cheap -- each one is typically $20 to $40.
This navy sweatshirt, which he bought at the Valley fire incident command center, features a towering inferno, bulldozers and a helicopter. It set him back about $40, he said.
Leonard Neft, a 69-year-old former San Jose Mercury News reporter, is among those unaccounted for after the Valley fire ripped through Lake County on Saturday, his family said.
Around 2 p.m. Saturday, Neft phoned his wife, Adela, to tell her he'd received a call saying there was a non-mandatory evacuation order for his Anderson Springs neighborhood, family members said. He didn't think much of it, they, said, but stayed in touch with his wife and daughter, who live in Sacramento, throughout the afternoon.
“For the first couple of hours they would talk on and off on the phone, and he said nothing was really happening,” said his daughter, Joslyn Neft.
By 6 p.m., her mother was frantically trying to convince her husband to leave, she said. “He said he didn't smell any smoke, he didn't see any ashes, and the glow of the fire seemed to be across the highway,” she told The Times in a phone interview Wednesday morning. “He didn't think it would reach him.”
Twelve phone calls in, she said, Adela convinced her husband to pack up the car and leave.
Around 8 p.m., there was another phone call, Joslyn said, and Leonard told his family he didn't think he could make it out of Anderson Springs on the main road. His daughter said he told them he would try driving up one of the side roads and hike up to the highway.
On Tuesday, she said, officials found her father's car, a 2005 Honda Civic, burned out on the side of a dead-end road. She said authorities told her there was nothing in the car.
“It's rough terrain, with rocks and trees,” she said. “He was in fairly good health ... but the conditions were not ideal.” Joslyn said she's concerned that her father may have made it out but is hurt or disoriented. He doesn't own a cellphone but would have found a way to reach them by now if he was OK, she said.
Napa County Sheriff's Department officials, overwhelmed with handling evacuations and search-and-rescue operations, have offered to send cadaver dogs when they can. she said. Joslyn Neft and her mother are headed to the Napa County Fairgrounds this morning, hoping that officials will escort them in to look for him.
“I just need people out there searching for him, I don't care who,” Joslyn Neft said.
Neft's family hasn't seen him in a few years, and believe he has salt-and-pepper hair and possibly a beard. Anyone with information can contact Joslyn Neft at (707) 355-2433.
Valley fire now among 10 most destructive state wildfires
The raging Valley fire that has destroyed more than 600 structures and killed one person is now considered the ninth most destructive wildfire in state history, officials said Wednesday.
The blaze has claimed an estimated 603 structures, including 585 homes. That number is "likely to increase by several hundred," CalFire officials said Wednesday.
The Butte fire, which was slowed by cooler temperatures overnight, also now ranks among the state's most damaging blazes. That fire has destroyed at least 400 structures, but fire officials believe it is now 45% contained.
Today is ... an important day because the weather is on our side
Robert Michael, Cal Fire incident commander for the Valley fire
A drive-by yields images of Valley fire's devastation
Bay Area television station KTVU attached a GoPro camera to one of its news vans as it surveyed the damage wrought by the Valley fire in one Middletown neighborhood.
Driveway after driveway is shown with no homes, just burned out cars and rubble. A melted trash can stands on what used to be a curb. Further down the road, a still-white picket fence looks pristine next to the leveled home it once protected.
So far this week, firefighters have knocked down two of the large wildfires burning in the state, CalFire says. The Tenaya fire in Yosemite Valley and the Antelope Fire in Kern County are both 100% contained.
Farmers impacted by wildfires eligible for federal assistance
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is ready to help farmers and ranchers in areas affected by the recent wildfires with their recovery. The Farm Service Agency will assist those who lost livestock, grazing land, fences or eligible trees, bushes and vines as a result of a natural disaster, according to a statement issued Tuesday by the agency.
Funding and technical assistance to help rehabilitate farmland and carry out emergency water conservation measures in periods of severe drought is also available, the agency said.
In addition to California, wildfires have ravaged parts of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington in recent months. According to the agriculture department, fire seasons are 78 days longer today than they were in the 1970s. This year, there have been more than 46,000 fires and since 2000, at least 10 states have had their largest fires on record, the agency said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein calls for changes to the way federal government funds wildfire efforts
With 12 major fires raging throughout the state, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Tuesday that the way the federal government pays for wildfire suppression exacerbates the problem.
"California is suffering from one of the worst fire seasons in decades," she said in a statement . "Unfortunately, the way we pay for firefighting activities worsens the situation."
Feinstein noted that the U.S. Forest Service will borrow $700 million this year to fight fires that are currently burning, siphoning funds away from prevention efforts like removing brush and dead trees.
"This approach means California and other Western states will be even more vulnerable to devastating wildfires next year as vital prevention programs are delayed, sometimes indefinitely."
Feinstein says she supports a recently introduced bill that would allow firefighting to be funded more like hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters that are given unlimited money once spending hits a certain threshold.
"No one should have to worry about getting an appropriation of additional funding to fight fires in the driest conditions in 500 years," Feinstein said.
Jay Albertson returned to his home near Hidden Valley Lake hoping to find his cat, Blue. Instead, what greeted him was a sheet of rubble--the remains of the home that he and his wife, Bonnie, built three decades ago in a secluded gateD community.
"This is 30 years of memories gone," said a visibly emotional Albertson. "This is a chapter of our lives that is gone forever."
Albertson was among evacuees who law enforcement escorted back to their properties on Tuesday to examine the status of their homes. They were given just 10 minutes to conduct a preliminary review.
Red Cross encourages fire evacuees to register their status
Red Cross officials are encouraging residents affected by the wildfires sweeping Northern California to register on the agency's Safe and Well Database.
The site allows people to log in and register their status, said Red Cross spokeswoman Pooja Trivedi.
"It's a way for people to communicate and notify their loved ones that they are safe," Trivedi said.
The number of registrants for the database related to the Valley fire was not immediately available. But Trivedi said the site had proven to be useful, especially during disasters when cellphone and Internet connectivity were disrupted.
As the sky darkened to a menacing orange Saturday afternoon, Susan Bennett debated whether to evacuate. Around 3 p.m., she called 911 as her husband Bo nursed a beer on the patio.
"Get out," the dispatcher told her. "Get the hell out right now."
The couple fled with two of their three cats, expecting to return within hours.
Twelve hours later, her husband couldn't take the suspense anymore. He dodged the highway blockade and drove the back roads to Middletown. Every home on his block was reduced to smoldering rubble - all that was left of their home was the chimney.
"But it's like it still isn't closed, for me, until I can see it for myself," Susan Bennett said from the Napa County Fairground, which is serving as an evacuation center. "It's going to be terrible. But I want to go see my dirt, and all the ashes."
Taking advantage of cooler weather, crews begin mop-up on portion of Valley fire
With cooler temperatures and even a little rain keeping fire activity down, some firefighters have been focusing on the unglamorous but crucial process of "mopping up."
This involves spraying down smoldering ashes and hot spots, clearing away dead and burned brush, and cutting down charred trees so they don't fall.
Though authorities are escorting some residents back to their homes to retrieve important documents and medications, most have been told to stay out of the area due to hazards such as downed power lines and fallen trees.
Valley fire one of the most destructive blazes in California history
The Valley fire, which has torched nearly 600 homes and burned a total of 67,000 acres so far, is shaping up to be one of the most destructive in California's recorded history.
"When all is said and done, this is likely to be one of the top five," said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant at a morning briefing on the status of the state's wildfires.
In addition to destroying 585 homes, the Valley fire has also leveled hundreds of other businesses and outbuildings, Berlant said. One person has been confirmed dead, and others are still unaccounted for.
About 13,000 people have been displaced by the blaze so far.
Why aren't there more firefighters at the Valley fire?
Robert Michael, the incident commander for the Valley fire, struggled this morning with questions about why more resources are not being diverted to the blaze, which threatens 9,000 homes. The Butte fire, which remains 35% contained, has 6,400 threatened structures, but thousands more firefighters currently assigned to it.
Michael said it is not fair to compare the number of crews, trucks and helicopters sent to different fires, and that how the state assigns resources is not just a matter of how many fires, but which ones started first and "the resources that were assigned initially."
"I don't know why you need to compare. Each incident is different. They are all equally important," Michael said. "They lost structures on the Butte fire; they lost structures here.
"They do prioritize incidents but right now because they're all losing structures, they're all having extreme fire behavior, they're all probably equal."
The Obama administration has directed $250 million toward fighting the wildfires raging in California and elsewhere, in addition to $450 million already transferred from different parts of the federal budget earlier this year to go toward fighting such disasters, officials said Tuesday.
As three major wildfires rage out of control in Northern California, the Obama administration also called on Congress to start treating the ravenous blazes just like hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters ¿ as emergencies exempt from spending limits.
“With the dramatic growth in wildland fire over the last three decades and an expected doubling again by mid-century, it only makes sense that Congress begin treating catastrophic wildfire as the natural disaster that it is,” Sally Jewell, secretary of the Interior, wrote in a letter to lawmakers also signed by the Department of Agriculture secretary and President Obama's budget director.
Schools in Middletown closed indefinitely, county officials say
All public schools in Lake County are scheduled to be closed at least through Tuesday as officials grapple with the devastation caused by the Valley fire.
But in Middletown and Cobb -- where the inferno has leveled scores of homes -- schools are closed until further notice, according to the Lake County Office of Education.
About one-third of the staff of the Konocti Unified School District has been displaced by the fire, and the homes of many teachers and staff have been destroyed, according to a statement provided by the district. Classes for Konocti students are scheduled to restart on Sept. 21.
Classes are expected to resume Wednesday in communities outside the burn area, including Lakeport, Upper Lake and Lucerne, county officials said.
With classes out, several students have joined in the relief effort. At the Moose Lodge near Clear Lake, the football team from Lower Lake High School volunteered to help evacuees.
State fire officials said late Monday that the Valley fire has leveled 585 homes along with hundreds of other structures and continues to grow largely untamed.
The fire, one of a dozen burning in California, has ravaged Middletown and neighboring communities located about 90 miles north of San Francisco.
About 9,000 other structures are threatened by the blaze, which has raced through 62,000 acres since it ignited Saturday, according to Cal Fire.
Mandatory evacuation orders remain in place for those in Twin Lakes, Hidden Valley Lake, Middletown, Aetna Springs, Seigler Canyon and Loch Lommond. Some residents in Pope Valley and Angwin are advised to evacuate.
The woman who died Saturday in her home as the Valley fire roared through had advanced multiple sclerosis and had no way to get out, her caretaker said.
Authorities have not released her name, but her caretaker identified her to The Times as Barbara McWilliams, 72, of Lake County.
McWilliams was the first reported fatality of the fast-moving fire, and her death has raised questions about the evacuation efforts.
On Monday, the Lake County Sheriff's Department issued a statement saying that deputies responded to the area 22 minutes after receiving a 7:12 p.m. call asking rescuers to help her. By that time, sheriff's officials said, the subdivision "had already been engulfed by flames."
The caretaker, Jennifer Hittson, 30, had worked for McWilliams for the past five months, said she had tried for hours to get officials to retrieve the woman, but was told by both deputies and Cal Fire officials that they did not have the time to assist.
"More should have been done," Hittson, of Kelseyville, told The Times on Monday.
McWilliams lived on Cobb Mountain, and though her health was failing, Hittson said, enjoyed feeding birds near her well-kept home. In the midst of the attempts to reach McWilliams, a neighbor confirmed her home had burned to the ground, Hittson said.
Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said in a brief interview at a mobile command post Monday that "the fire spread too violently and too quickly for us to be able to get to her on time."
Hittson says she has been torn by grief and regret. "I could have made her get in my car," she said.
The Rough fire in Fresno County is still burning, and at 138,053 acres charred, it's the largest actively burning fire in the state.
The fire was sparked by lightning on July 31, and is now 40% contained. New evacuations and warnings were issued over the weekend.
Firefighters battling the blaze are helping protect structures and historic trees, checking for embers in Kings Canyon National Park's Grant Grove, home of the famous giant sequoia, General Grant . Hundreds were forced to evacuate the park last week as the fire grew.
Fatality in Valley fire was elderly disabled woman, officials say
The first reported fatality in the Valley fire appears to have been an elderly disabled woman, according to the Lake County Sheriff's Department.
Emergency officials said they received a call around 7:15 p.m. Saturday requesting help for the woman, who lived on Hot Springs Road. About 15 minutes later, they said, firefighters arrived to find the neighborhood consumed by the fire.
"The resident was apparently unable to self-evacuate and responders were unable to make it to her home before the fire engulfed the structure," a Sheriff's Department news release said.
Firefighters later found the remains of a person but an identification has not been released, pending an investigation and notification of family members, officials said.
Authorities said other individuals remain unaccounted for in the blaze, but a specific number is yet to be determined.
The Valley fire in Lake County, Calif., has spread along two fronts, and as of Monday morning, had burned 61,000 acres, or 95 square miles, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Click on the map for more information.
Source: California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
Driver flees flames on both sides in dramatic videos of Valley fire escape
As the Valley fire exploded Saturday, some residents had just minutes to escape their homes.
In a series of terrifying videos posted on YouTube, a driver flees a neighborhood called Anderson Springs, about five miles from the Northern California town of Middletown, Calif., which has been burned to the ground.
The videos (which contain some expletives) show tree trunks glowing red as the driver passes, and flames engulfing what appear to be buildings and a car.
Embers and ash spew across the headlights.
More than 400 homes have been lost so far in the Valley fire, and thousands have fled.
Experts said the Valley fire moved faster than any other in California's recent history. Extremely high temperatures across the state last week combined with drought-dried vegetation, they said, allowing the fire to pick up steam in forested areas and then enter towns with a vengeance.
The morning brought revelations of how far the Valley fire had spread, and renewed hopes that an aerial assault against the catastrophic fire would resume, even as it threatened to re-burn homes already ravaged once.
"The way it burned, it left so many pockets, the fire will turn around," said incident planning chief Rob Daugherty at the morning briefing for those fighting the fire. "If you saved the house, today you'll have to save the backside."
The same cloud cover on Sunday that grounded tankers and helicopters waiting to join the fight also prevented wildland firefighters from finding its edges.
"We had a hard time actually finding where parts of the fire were," Daugherty said.
But the dense gray sky also promised to keep the spread of the uncontained fire, now beyond 61,000 acres, at a crawl compared to Saturday's initial 40,000-acre run.
Flight commanders were concerned they would spend a second day grounded, preventing not only water and fire retardant drops but emergency medical evacuations.
"Yesterday we weren't able to fly. We might be in the same situation today," said air operations branch director Matt Stanford. Tankers and eight helicopters are on standby, waiting for visibility to improve. "If we get clear air, we will be flying," Stanford said.
Middletown, Calif., suffered a devastating blow from the fire. Entire blocks of homes and structures were burned to the ground. Images of the devastation show the Northern California town's main street in flames, along with an apartment complex and part of a school.