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California

More than 500 homes are lost in Butte wildfire

 Butte fire

Ian Gussel, 16, carries a container of gas to fuel the generator brought by a friend in Mountain Ranch, Calif. The Gussels have been without power and water since Wednesday and have decided to stay at their property to protect their organic chicken farm.

(Andrew Seng / Associated Press)

More than 500 homes have been destroyed in a wildfire that is burning in Calaveras and Amador counties.

The tally comes as thousands of fire personnel continue to make progress against the Butte fire, which has burned 70,760 acres since it erupted Sept. 9.

The blaze, which has killed two people, is now 65% contained, though multiple evacuations remain in place, said Cal Fire spokesman Joshua Rubinstein.

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“It’s a great emotional toll for a lot of these folks,” he said. 

On Friday, fire officials had reported 365 homes burned. By Saturday morning, they had counted 503, Rubinstein said. An additional 330 outbuildings have been destroyed, and 47 structures have been damaged. 

One of the hardest hit areas in the Butte fire was Mountain Ranch, where residents are still trying to fathom the devastation.

After hearing the name of a friend, Mark McCloud, broadcast on the radio in a report on people missing in the Butte fire, Glenn Wharregard drove up to the burn zone, determined to find him.

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When Wharregard saw McCloud’s cars and his Harley-Davidson motorcycle parked in his driveway here Monday, his gut began to churn.

Wharregard’s son later found McCloud’s body down the hill, a few yards from his burned-out house. McCloud, 66, had defied evacuation orders, refused a neighbor’s offer of a ride out and tried to fight the fire himself, Wharregard heard later.

“His house was all he had,” Wharregard said. “He was doing everything in his power to keep it.”

There have been two deaths this week attributed to the Butte fire, and both of them were residents of tiny Mountain Ranch: McCloud and 82-year-old Owen Goldsmith. Both refused to evacuate, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The Butte fire has destroyed dozens of houses in Mountain Ranch, a historic former mining town of about 1,600 people that was among the hardest hit by the blaze.

The deadly fire — one of the most destructive in state history — may have been started by a power line coming into contact with a tree, according to Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which said it is cooperating with a Cal Fire investigation.

“While we don’t have all the facts yet, a live tree may have contacted a PG&E line in the vicinity of the ignition point,” Barry Anderson, the company’s vice president for emergency preparedness and operations, said in a statement.

On Friday, there were eight active wildfires in the state, officials said. The Valley fire in Lake County had consumed 73,700 acres and was 45% contained, according to Cal Fire. Three known deaths have resulted from that fire.

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The Rough fire burning in the Sequoia National Forest in Fresno County was reported to be 68% contained and had burned 141,201 acres. It is now the 15th-largest wildfire in California’s history, according to Cal Fire.

In Mountain Ranch, the residents are a self-described independent lot. People sometimes don’t evacuate when fire threatens because they feel responsible for protecting their own property, Wharregard said.

As the Butte fire raged, Mountain Ranch residents revved up family tractors and bulldozers to create their own fire breaks around the historic town center. A group of men has been patrolling the town with their own water truck, stamping out hot spots, and skirting road closures and blockades with four-wheel-drive vehicles on twisting back roads.

Wharregard, an auto repair business owner who lives just outside town, said his friend McCloud was retired, lived alone and took pride in living like a mountain man.

McCloud lived in a house on a gravel road in a distant part of the community, where he studied astronomy, raised chickens, tinkered with electronics and installed his own solar panels.

“I have been up in this neck of the woods going on eight years now, and it is great,” McCloud wrote on a ham radio site, where he used the call sign K6YCV, in July. “Lots of wildlife, trees and a whole lot of room.”

Goldsmith, whose body was found Tuesday inside his fire-ravaged house, also cherished the natural beauty of Mountain Ranch, said his friend Tom Darter.

Goldsmith was a composer and former music theory and orchestra teacher at high schools in Livermore and Clayton. He also taught piano and chamber music classes at two Northern California colleges.

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Darter, 66, of Sequim, Wash., was one of Goldsmith’s students at Livermore High School in the 1960s and had remained a friend. On Friday, he was working on a composition in honor of Goldsmith, who taught him how to write music.

“The thing that mattered to him most was music,” Darter said. “He wanted other people to understand how strong the feelings music could give you.”

Goldsmith moved to Mountain Ranch decades ago. In monthly phone calls with Darter and his wife, Goldsmith would talk about music and about sitting on the front porch, feeding animals and soaking in the beauty of the outdoors.

Lately, though, the isolation was starting to get to Goldsmith, Darter said, and he had become depressed. He was getting older, and he no longer could take long walks or work outside.

But in the end, he apparently decided not to leave.

“Nature was the second love of his life, after music,” Darter said. “He loved that place. I imagine he just couldn’t stand the idea of leaving it.”

Shyong reported from Mountain Ranch and Branson-Potts from Los Angeles.

frank.shyong@latimes.com

Twitter: @frankshyong

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Twitter: @haileybranson

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