MIDDLETOWN, Calif. (AP) — Two men died after rejecting orders to evacuate. Two others were killed after declining pleas by friends and family to leave.
Some survivors say they never even received notice that one of the most destructive California wildfires in recent memory was quickly approaching and they should leave immediately.
Five people were killed when a pair of wildfires tore through Northern California, blowing up unexpectedly during a heat wave and burning hundreds of hard-to-reach homes, many prized for their privacy.
The death toll has raised questions about whether more could have been done to save lives.
Authorities defended their warnings and rescue attempts, saying they did all they could to reach people.
“You may get that notice, or you may not, depending on how fast that fire is moving. If you can see the fire, you need to be going,” said Lynnette Round, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CalFire.
Round said 66-year-old Mark McCloud and 82-year-old Owen Goldsmith died after rejecting evacuation orders to leave their Calaveras County homes.
The body of 72-year-old Barbara McWilliams, who used a walker, was found in her home in Anderson Springs in the other fire in Lake County.
Her caregiver, Jennifer Hittson, said there were no evacuation orders when she left McWilliams’ home around 3 p.m. Saturday and no indication the fire was serious.
High school math teacher Bill Davis, who lives near McWilliams, said he watched the smoke rise, but it wasn’t until the electricity failed that he called CalFire and waited on hold for an hour.
“When I finally got through … they said my street was not on an evacuation order, but you might want to leave. I was never told, ‘Get the hell out of there, there’s a huge fire coming at you,'” he said.
By 5:30 p.m., with the smoke thicker and helicopters grounded, he knew he should go. “That’s when I started rounding up my cats and leaving,” he said.
From a previous fire in late July, he knew to expect a reverse 9-1-1 recording on his cellphone or look for someone coming through the neighborhood with a bullhorn yelling for people to evacuate.
“None of that happened,” he said. His house burned.
The Lake County sheriff’s office has declined repeated phone calls and emails for comment on how and when residents were notified. In a statement issued earlier this week, sheriff’s Lt. Steve Brooks said CalFire requested evacuation assistance at 1:50 p.m. Saturday but it remains unclear which communities were notified and how.
CalFire spokesman Richard Cordova could not confirm early evacuation details but said that given the speed of the fire, the death toll could have been much higher.
“Any loss of a life is heartfelt, but there should have been a lot more lives lost with the way that fire was moving,” he said.
The Lake County fire tore through 62 square miles in 12 hours, burning nearly 600 homes and causing thousands of residents to flee. Cordova said 19,000 people were under evacuation orders.
The body of former newspaper reporter Leonard Neft, 69, was found near his burnt car after what may have been an attempt to escape, his daughter Joselyn Neft said Friday. His wife had asked him to leave earlier Saturday, but he said the fire looked far away.
The body of Bruce Beven Burns, 65, was found in a building on the Lake County grounds of his brother’s recycling business, where Burns also lived.
County Supervisor Jim Comstock, 65, who lives in Middletown, said he didn’t receive an evacuation order and he believes authorities didn’t have time to issue orders in person, given the fire’s speed.
Comstock stayed on his 1,700-acre ranch with his wife, daughter and grandchildren, battling the flames and restricting the fire to just 50 acres, leaving him and his family safe.
“I’m old, and I’m ornery,” he said of the reason he stayed.
Gary Herrin defended his 3 acres in Middletown. No one told him to leave, he said, and he wouldn’t have anyway.
When the fire hit his street around 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Herrin said, he and several others used water from wells and swimming pools to battle flames, saving eight homes.
At 10 p.m. he collapsed by a swimming pool with about 6 inches of water left. “We were going to stand our ground, and we decided to fight,” he said.
The story brought a shudder from James McMullen, a former California state fire marshal who runs a fire consulting business in Davis.
“Some people don’t realize how intense a wildfire is and they say, ‘Oh, I’ll just stay here with my garden hose and leap up on the roof and yet that’s the worst thing they can do,'” he said.