MIDDLETOWN, Calif. – Barbara McWilliams told her caretaker she didn't want to leave her home near Middletown, despite a nearby wildfire. The world traveler and sharp-minded woman with advanced multiple sclerosis said she would be fine.
The decision ended up costing her life. Her body was found late Sunday in her burned-out home after flames kept Lake County sheriff's officials from reaching her.
The fire that sped through Middletown and other parts of rural Lake County, less than 100 miles north of San Francisco, has been burning nearly unchecked, despite a massive firefighting effort, since Saturday. Fueled by drought, it has consumed more than 95 square miles, injured four firefighters and sent hundreds of people to evacuation centers. Hundreds of homes have burned.
Jennifer Hittson, the caregiver, told the Press Democrat that she left McWilliams' home around 3 p.m. Saturday, unaware of the fire's seriousness or how quickly it would grow, even though officers were at that point turning drivers away from Highway 175, which leads to the Cobb Mountain area where McWilliams lived.
Hittson said she called the sheriff's office twice Saturday and CalFire on Sunday, only to be told by dispatchers, "we will get out there when we can."
Hittson said McWilliams could walk slowly and that her hands were weak. "That I left her there, it haunts me," she said.
She could not be reached by The Associated Press for additional comment, and Lake County officials also did not immediately return calls.
Lake County Sheriff's Lt. Steve Brooks said in a statement that the fire started at 1:22 p.m. Saturday and that at 1:50 p.m., CalFire asked for help with evacuations.
He said the sheriff's office received a call about an elderly disabled female at 7:12 p.m. Saturday and they responded 15 minutes later but were unable to reach the subdivision. He said dispatch lines were flooded with worried relatives and friends asking for help.
The fire and another in the Gold Rush country of the Sierra Nevada foothills, about 120 miles to the southeast, are the worst of a dozen burning in the state. Between them, they have destroyed at least 720 homes and hundreds of other structures and displaced 23,000 people, fire officials said.
Lake County has been particularly hard-hit. In late July, a wildfire east of Clear Lake destroyed 43 homes as it spread across more than 100 square miles. As firefighters drew close to surrounding the blaze, another fire erupted Aug. 9 several miles from the community of Lower Lake.
The town's small cluster of shops and cafes was spared, but behind them erratic winds sent flames zigzagging down leafy streets, torching some houses and sparing others. On Monday, some residents returned to find their homes reduced to concrete foundations and chimney stacks.
One two-story apartment complex of about 50 units was gutted, blackened cars with melted tires sitting near washers and driers and the skeletons of metal chairs. Yet a colorful play structure was untouched, and two lots away stood eight homes, behind a white picket fence.
The flames also spread into northern Napa County, but the region's famous wine valley was not threatened.
California has seen about 6,000 wildfires this year — about 1,500 more than this time last year.
East of Fresno, California's largest wildfire marched away from the Sierra Nevada's Giant Sequoia trees, some 3,000 years old, fire spokesman Dave Schmitt said. The fire, sparked by lightning July 31, has charred 211 square miles and was nearly 40 percent contained.
Pritchard reported from Los Angeles. Contributing to this report were Haven Daley in Middletown, Elaine Thompson in Cobb, Don Thompson in Sacramento, Kristin J. Bender and Paul Elias in San Francisco, and John Antczak in Los Angeles.