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Wildfire deaths now at 5 as evacuees face weekend heat wave

Wildfire deaths now at 5 as evacuees face weekend heat wave
A sign on a fence in a Middletown neighborhood addresses the recent looting of homes that have been evacuated in the wake of the Valley fire. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

The displaced people went from fleeing flames to shivering in tents in the rain. Now, evacuees of the deadly wildfires in Northern California, hundreds of them living in tent camps, will face a heat wave this weekend.

The National Weather Service is warning of weekend temperatures in the mid- to upper 90s in the areas ravaged by the Valley and Butte fires. High pressure building over the West Coast will bring a warming and drying trend -- and increased fire danger, the weather service said.

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For evacuees, "weather concerns will change from staying warm and dry to staying cool," the weather service said. People staying in tents should try to put their tents in shady areas, drink lots of water and use portable, battery-operated fans, the weather service recommended.

"Temperatures will be above normal, but on the bright side, the winds aren't going to be as strong," said meteorologist Nathan Owen.

Cooler temperatures and a steady rain Wednesday in the Valley fire area helped firefighters "make good progress because of the rain," Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said in a morning Periscope briefing.

On Thursday, the Valley fire was 35% contained and had burned 73,700 acres. The 70,760-acre Butte fire was 49% contained.

The death toll in the Valley and Butte fires rose to five Thursday with confirmation that the bodies of two men had been recovered the previous day in the Valley fire in Lake County.

One of the bodies, found in the Anderson Springs area, is presumed to be Leonard Neft, a 69-year-old former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, who had told his family by telephone that he would try to escape his 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 reported it was presumed to be Bruce Beven Burns, who was reported missing two days ago.

Those deaths make three attributed to the Valley fire. A disabled woman died Saturday night when the fire swept through her neighborhood.

Two men have been confirmed dead in the Butte fire. Both "were in the evacuation areas and did not heed those warnings," Berlant said.

The body of Mark McCloud, 66, was discovered Tuesday night 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.

An 80-year-old man was identified Thursday as the other victim. The body of Owen Goldsmith was found Tuesday in his home on Eagle View Drive in Mountain Ranch, said Calaveras County Coroner Kevin Raggio. Goldsmith was found in his home, which was "completely consumed" by the fire, Raggio said.

Authorities have been urging people to heed evacuation orders and leave even before official orders come if they feel threatened.

"People stay to defend their house and property," said Capt. Buck Condit, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "Maybe they don't understand the danger, or if they do, they are just overconfident. Maybe they've survived a few close calls."

At the Jackson Rancheria Hotel and Casino in Jackson, hundreds of people who fled the Butte fire have been sleeping in their cars and cots set up in the hotel conference center, waiting for news about their homes.

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Amador County, where the Butte fire has raged, is heavily wooded, hilly country, dotted with close-knit towns of people who learn to distinguish forest fires from brushfires by the color of the smoke. At the emergency shelter set up in the Rancheria casino, displaced residents described a variety of reasons for moving to an area where fire danger looms constantly.

George Gray, 75, from West Point, moved to Amador County to work as a logger and tree climber. He enjoys the solitude and said he moved out here to "be among the trees." When the fire broke out Sept. 9 down the hill from his house, he didn't think long about evacuating.

"It looked like a tornado coming up the hill, all wind and black and fire," he said.

The Butte Fire is one of the most destructive fires in the state's history, destroying 252 residences and 188 outbuildings, as well as 17 structures. But Gray doesn't have any plans to relocate. Fires don't happen all the time out here, he said, and he's survived them before.

When the fire started, he went back in his house and packed important documents, pictures, a change of clothes and his Alfie doll, which he's had for more than 30 years, and drove to a hotel.

"There's always that fear that everything's going to go up again," he said.

Pat Lombardi, 75, of Mokelumne Hill, saw the plume of smoke across a canyon near her house. Everyone told her that her home would be OK, so she went to bed. A few hours later, her house's windows glowed orange with firelight, and sheriff's deputies showed up on her doorstep telling her she needed to evacuate.

Lombardi said it's not unusual for people to stay behind to protect their homes.

"There are some people who want to protect what they have because they know that only they can do it," Lombardi said.

Lombardi — who said that out here, "you learn to live with fire and control it" — has lived in the area for 33 years. She's seen five bad forest fires. Her grandfather died of a heart attack during one.

She's not afraid of fires, but she hates them — "the devil at work," she calls them.

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

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