CBSN

​More than 1,000 homes destroyed by 2 California fires

MIDDLETOWN, Calif. -- The tally of homes destroyed by two massive Northern California wildfires topped 1,000 Saturday after authorities doing damage assessments in the Sierra Nevada foothills counted another 250 houses destroyed by flames still threatening thousands of more structures.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said the count of 503 homes destroyed by the blaze burning for a week in Amador and Calaveras counties comes as firefighters make progress and damage inspection teams have access to affected areas.

Cal Fire had reported 252 homes destroyed as of Friday night by the week-old fire that has charred 110 square miles.

"Some of the homes are tucked back in rural areas so it's taken time to reach them," Berlant said.

The fire, which killed at least two people, was 65 percent contained but still threatening another 6,400 structures.

A separate blaze in Lake County, about 170 miles northwest, destroyed at least 585 homes and burned hundreds of other structures. It has killed three people.

Residents of Middletown, the area hardest hit by the massive wildfire in California, were allowed to return home Saturday afternoon. Evacuation orders for other areas in Lake County remained.

The Lake County fire tore through 62 square miles in 12 hours, causing thousands of residents to flee after it ignited a week ago. About 19,000 people were ordered to evacuate. The blaze had charred 116 square miles and was 48 percent contained Saturday.

Heat was descending again on the two deadly and destructive Northern California wildfires after a few days of fair and favorable conditions, raising fears that major gains could be undone.

"We're looking at predicted weather of 100 degrees for the next couple of days, and at least mid-90s throughout the weekend," Scott Mclean, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said Friday.

That makes it essential that the smoldering remains of the two giant blazes be dealt with as quickly and thoroughly as possible, Mclean said.

"You've got some high temps, high winds that could stir up those ash piles and those ember piles," he said. "We have to do that mop-up to be sure this fire goes to bed."

A number of survivors of the Lake County fire said they never got an official evacuation notice when the danger was at its peak a week ago.

Authorities defended their warnings and rescue attempts, saying they did all they could to reach people in the remote area of homes, many prized for their privacy.

"You may get that notice, or you may not, depending on how fast that fire is moving," Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynnette Round said. "If you can see the fire, you need to be going."

In Calaveras County, Round said 66-year-old Mark McCloud and 82-year-old Owen Goldsmith died after rejecting evacuation orders to leave their Calaveras County homes, CBS San Francisco reported.

In nearby Lake County, however, evacuation orders were less clear.

The body of 72-year-old Barbara McWilliams, who used a walker, was found in her home in Anderson Springs. Her caregiver, Jennifer Hittson, said there were no evacuation orders when she left McWilliams' home around 3 p.m. Sept. 12 and no indication the fire was that serious.

She asked McWilliams if she wanted to leave but the retired teacher declined, saying the fire didn't seem bad.

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, 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. It's unknown why he stayed.

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 Cal Fire 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 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 to respond to repeated phone calls and emails seeking comment on how and when residents were notified. In a statement issued earlier this week, sheriff's Lt. Steve Brooks said Cal Fire requested evacuation assistance at 1:50 p.m. last Saturday but it remains unclear which communities were notified and how.

Cal Fire 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.

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. The fire scorched all but 50 acres of his land and spared his house and barn.

"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. last 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.