Firefighters battling a devastating fire that sped through Middletown and other parts of California's rural Lake County, killing one person, made progress late Tuesday by getting 30 percent containment on the blaze, Cal Fire said.
The Valley Fire, located less than 100 miles north of San Francisco, has charred 67,200 acres and has been burning since Saturday. By Tuesday morning, 2,362 fire personnel were battling the flames with the assistance of 232 fire engines, eight helicopters, 31 dozers and 67 water tenders, Cal Fire officials said.
Firefighters at the scene of the fast-moving wildfire were assisted by Monday's cooler temperatures and higher humidity. However, officials do not yet have an estimate on when the blaze will be fully contained.
Fueled by drought, the Valley Fire has consumed more than 95 square miles — larger than the cities of San Francisco and Oakland combined, injured four firefighters and threatened 9,000 structures. It has displaced more than 13,000 people who flooded nearby evacuation centers, including Kelseyville High School, Napa County Fairgrounds, Highland Senior Center and Big Valley Rancheria Gymnasium.
PG&E officials said Tuesday that over 7,200 people are without power.
Meanwhile, the Lake County Office of Education closed all the county's public schools Tuesday. Lakeport, Upper Lake and Lucerne schools are scheduled to reopen Wednesday while the Middletown, Konocti and Kelseyville unified school districts will remain shut for the rest of the week.
"Due to the devastation in the Middletown and Cobb area, it is unknown when Middletown schools will reopen," county education officials said in a statement.
The raging inferno has also gutted 585 homes and hundreds more structures are known to have been destroyed.
One of those houses belonged to Barbara McWilliams, a 72-year-old retired teacher.
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.
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.
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 inundated with worried relatives and friends asking for help.
On Tuesday, the Lake County Sheriff's Office issued a statement indicating that deputies planned to escort residents to their homes from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. so they could "take care of or pick up livestock and pets that were left during the initial evacuation."
People were instructed to be ready with food and other necessary equipment and complete their task in 15 minutes. The statement also stressed that deputies would not foray into Loch Lomond or Anderson Springs due to ongoing firefighting efforts or any other areas where fires are actively burning. Also, the escorts were not intended for residents to pick up medication, clothes or other personal items, it said.
Meanwhile, Senator Mike McGuire took to Facebook to thank residents of Lake County and the surrounding areas for raising funds to benefit the victims of the deadly fire.
"Amazing generosity for Lake County #ValleyFire victims. $188k total raised for relief efforts (so far) - $35k just tonight! We cannot say THANK YOU enough!" he wrote.
The Valley Fire and another in the Gold Rush country of the Sierra Nevada foothills — known as the so-called Butte Fire — 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 uprooted 23,000 people, fire officials said.
Cal Fire said Tuesday that the Butte Fire had spread to 71,660 acres and was 15 percent contained.
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.
Middletown's small cluster of shops and cafes was spared in the current blaze, 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.
More information about the Valley Fire can be found on Cal Fire's website.