Bodies expected to be found among ruins of wildfire, California officials say

‘It’s not a pretty picture’ says state’s fire chief as reports of looting follow evacuations in Lake County towns of Middletown and Hidden Valley

Mike Greenslate stands next to the remains of his home in Lake County, California.
Mike Greenslate stands next to the remains of his home in Lake County, California. Photograph: Randy Pench/AP

Authorities say they are expecting to find several bodies amid the smoldering ruins of a northern California county hard-hit by a drought-fueled wildfire, as residents began to pick through what remained of their homes.

State and local officials in a convoy of government-issued SUVs inspected the devastated region about 100 miles north of San Francisco on Wednesday morning. Smoking power lines dangled overhead. The convoy stopped frequently to view the hardest-hit areas.

The officials are contemplating asking president Barack Obama for emergency federal assistance. Obama and Governor Jerry Brown are expected to discuss the matter Wednesday.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” said Kim Zagaris, the state’s fire chief, on the tour. “There’s going to be a lot of heartbreak for the folks who live out here.”

Some 15 minutes before entering Middletown, California, police were interrogating anyone who wanted to make it through. Many were turned away. Residents of Middletown and nearby Hidden Valley, who are under an evacuation order since Saturday evening when a massive wildfire pummeled the towns, raised concerns that looters are entering private homes.

“The doors are open and there are some people who are just walking in and taking things,” said Chuck Navin of Middletown as he surveyed the remains of his charred home. “This is why some of us spend the days here, so we can keep the security.”

His assortment of weapons, from guns to swords, are little more than burned relics. “We all just want to try and get things back to normal and the looting is not helping.”

In nearby Hidden Valley, a short five-minute drive north from Middletown, doors of homes are open and little police presence aside from the checkpoints and a few cars touring the town is seen. When approached by the Guardian on Tuesday afternoon, one officer dismissed the notion that looting was taking place, saying “security and safety is our first concern”.

Police in Lake County said at least two arrests had been reported.

Heath Bijsma reaches out to touch the torched remains of a 1970s-era Chevrolet Nova car that was lost along with a home of a friend in a wildfire several days earlier.
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Heath Bijsma reaches out to touch the torched remains of a 1970s-era Chevrolet Nova car that was lost along with a home of a friend in a wildfire several days earlier. Photograph: Elaine Thompson/AP

Aided by drought, the fire has consumed more than 109 square miles since the flames sped Saturday through rural Lake County, less than 100 miles north of San Francisco.

Crews are gaining ground on the fire and were able to double containment from 15% to 30% on Wednesday, California department of forestry and fire protection spokesman Dan Olson said.

The weather was cooperating, with heavy rain falling Wednesday morning.

“We’re trying to use that the best we can,” Olson said. “Hopefully we get a little bit more rain.”

Cadaver dogs and their handlers are scouring Lake County in a search for missing persons thought to have perished in a fast-moving blaze that has destroyed more than 600 homes 90 miles north of San Francisco.

A former police reporter whose home was destroyed by a raging wildfire was reported missing by his family, and authorities said Wednesday his burned-out car was found on the route he would have used to escape.

Leonard Neft, 69, who worked for the San Jose Mercury News, last spoke with his family on Saturday.

His daughter Joselyn Neft said his wife, Adela Neft, repeatedly called him then to tell him to leave the house, but he told her he didn’t think the fire was coming toward him.

Leonard Neft’s house was in the same area where 72-year-old Barbara McWilliams was found dead.

McWilliams told her caretaker she didn’t want to leave her home near Middletown. The world traveler and sharp-minded woman with advanced multiple sclerosis said she would be fine.

Her body was found Sunday in her burned-out home after flames kept Lake County sheriff’s officials from reaching her.

Authorities say 585 homes were known to be destroyed, and the number was expected to increase. Another 9,000 structures remained threatened.

The Lake County fire and another blaze about 120 miles to the south-east have displaced 23,000 people and were the worst of a dozen wildfires burning in the state. The Lake County fire spread into northern Napa County, but the region’s famous wine valley was not threatened.

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. Another fire erupted 9 August several miles from the community of Lower Lake.

A separate destructive wildfire burning less than 200 miles away in the Sierra Nevada had destroyed at least 233 homes. The blaze in Amador and Calaveras counties has charred more than 110 square miles and was 45% contained on Wednesday. It was threatening another 6,400 structures.

East of Fresno, California’s largest wildfire had moved away from the Sierra Nevada’s Giant Sequoia trees, some of which are 3,000 years old.

The Associated Press contributed to this report