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Fire death toll rises as officials urge people to heed evacuation warnings

Smoke rises from the charred remains of a home and garden in Anderson Springs.
Smoke rises from the charred remains of a home and garden in Anderson Springs.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

As the Butte fire bore down on communities along the Sierra Nevada foothills, there were plenty of people who chose to stay put.

“There are some people who want to protect what they have because they think that only they can do it,” said Pat Lombardi, 75, a self-described ranch girl from Mokelumne Hill in Calaveras County. “Out here, you learn to live with fire.”

When the flames got too close to her house, Lombardi fled.

As the death toll from Northern California’s massive Butte and Valley fires grew to five Thursday, authorities continued to urge people to heed official evacuation orders — and to leave sooner if they feel threatened.

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Capt. Buck Condit, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said there’s little firefighters can do to help people who don’t leave.

Two of those killed in the Butte fire — 82-year-old Owen Goldsmith and 66-year-old Mark McCloud of Mountain Ranch — “were in the evacuation areas and did not heed those warnings,” Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

Goldsmith, a composer and former music theory teacher, and McCloud were found Tuesday inside their burned-out homes.

The other three known deaths resulted from the Valley fire.

The Lake County Sheriff’s Department said Thursday that one of the bodies, recovered in the Anderson Springs area, was presumed to be Leonard Neft — a 69-year-old former San Jose Mercury News reporter who had told his family Saturday that he would try to escape 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. Sheriff’s officials said they presumed it to be Bruce Beven Burns, who was reported missing earlier this week.

Over the weekend, Barbara McWilliams, 72, died in her Lake County home on Cobb Mountain. The disabled woman, the first reported fatality of the fast-moving fire, had refused initial advice to leave and later could not be rescued.

By Thursday, the Valley fire had left hundreds homeless, consumed 73,700 acres and was 35% contained, according to Cal Fire. The Butte fire was reported to be 70,760 acres and 55% contained.

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According to the National Weather Service, the cooler temperatures and rain that assisted firefighters in recent days were expected to give way to weekend temperatures in the mid- to upper 90s — weather that will increase fire danger.

The Butte fire began Sept. 9 in Amador County and swept south and east to Calaveras County, racing up rolling golden hills and ripping through wooded canyons, devastating hundreds of homes.

Mountain Ranch, a historic former mining town of about 1,600 people, was hit hardest.

Calaveras County Supervisor Christopher Wright has spent days driving around his district, sending updates on social media to displaced residents who are desperate to know if their homes survived. Most evacuated willingly, Wright said, but there will always be those who think they can save their homes from the flames.

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“There’s a lot of stubborn people out there,” he said. “Rugged individualists, I guess you’d call it.”

California 49 — a reference to the 1849 California Gold Rush — runs through Calaveras and Amador counties. Many of the area’s residents are descended from the original miners, loggers and ranchers, including Amador County Supervisor Louis Boitano.

Even though most longtime residents know wildfires are too powerful and unpredictable to take on themselves, Boitano said, still “a lot of people think they can save their house with a garden hose.”

“That’s not going to happen,” he said.

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And on Thursday, there was an outpouring of gratitude for the presence of firefighters. Many driveways featured colorful handmade signs with slogans like “Firefighters Are Heroes” and “Thank You EMS!”

At an emergency shelter at the Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort, evacuees explained why they had chosen to live in an area where fire danger seemingly looms all the time: the beauty, solitude and independence.

George Gray, from West Point in Calaveras County, said he moved there to work as a logger and tree climber. He has a set of beautiful pine trees in his frontyard, he said, and doesn’t plan to cut them down — even though it would be safer to clear the area around his home.

“That’s why I moved out here, to be among the trees,” he said.

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The Butte fire broke out down the hill from his house. “It looked like a tornado coming up the hill, all wind and black and fire,” said Gray, 75.

The blaze has destroyed 252 homes, according to Cal Fire.

One of them belonged to Jolene Baker. It was a beautiful place, she said Thursday, with gazebos, flowers and tall pine trees all around.

“There’s nothing there,” she said. “The whole street is gone.”

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As Baker and her husband fled, there were flames on both sides of the road.

“Fire, I’ve got to tell you, it is the scariest thing I have ever been in,” she said.

“It’s like being in hell. You can hear it. That’s the amazing thing, you can hear the sound that fire makes. You can’t escape it and you hear all the things exploding in the background.”

Some of Baker’s Mountain Ranch neighbors have sneaked back to see if anything is left. They had a nice little neighborhood, she said. But now “it looks like someone dropped a nuke.”

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frank.shyong@latimes.com

hailey.branson@latimes.com

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

Shyong reported from Jackson, Branson-Potts from Los Angeles and St. John from Lake County

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