Sep 16, 2015 10:20 PM

2 bodies found in ruins of Sierra Nevada foothills fire

The Associated Press

MIDDLETOWN, Calif. (AP) Officials searched the burned-out remains of homes in Northern California on Wednesday, looking for a former police reporter and several other people who authorities fear were killed in a fast-moving blaze in that part of the state.

About 170 southeast, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, two bodies were found inside burned-out homes Tuesday, Calaveras County coroner Kevin Raggio said.

One of the victims was identified as Mark McCloud, 65, who was found inside his residence in the Mountain Ranch area. Raggio wouldn't release the name of the second victim, also found in Mountain Ranch, because the family has not been notified.

He said both were found in an area where mandatory evacuations were ordered after the fire burning 60 miles southeast of Sacramento exploded in size over the weekend.

Fire investigators are looking into whether that blaze was sparked after a live tree came in contact with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power lines, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

Barry Anderson, PG&E vice president of emergency preparedness and operations, said the utility is cooperating fully with the Cal Fire investigation and is reviewing the inspection and patrol data for 2014 and 2015 for the area near this fire.

The deaths came in addition to an elderly, disabled woman whose body was found Sunday in the ruins of her Lake County home about 100 miles north of San Francisco.

Authorities were searching nearby for a 69-year-old Leonard Neft, who was reported missing by his family. His burned-out car was discovered on a route he would have used to escape.

"We have reports of several others that may have perished in the fire," Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said during a tour of the disaster zone with state emergency officials.

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

His house was in the same area where Barbara McWilliams, 72, was found dead. She told her caretaker she didn't want to leave her home near Middletown and would be fine.

Martin was among the state and local officials who traveled in a convoy of government SUVs to inspect the still-smoldering ruins in the devastated Lake County region.

Smoking power lines dangled overhead in one area as officials looked over the hardest-hit places.

The officials were considering asking President Barack Obama for emergency federal assistance. Obama and Gov. Jerry Brown were expected to discuss the matter Wednesday.

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

Zagaris said the official tally of homes destroyed in the Lake County fire stood at 603 a figure that's expected to increase.

Sheriff's deputies and others have responded to a number of missing-persons reports since the fire broke out Saturday. Many of those unaccounted for could be staying with relatives, on vacation or not affected by the fire, officials said.

The fire has consumed more than 109 square miles. Crews were gaining ground on it and more than doubled containment from 15 percent to 35 percent, Cal Fire said.

The weather was cooperating, with rain falling steadily at an evacuation center where hundreds of people were staying in trucks and tents. The center at the Napa County fairgrounds was feeding about 1,000 people at each meal. The food was being prepared by wine country chefs who are donating their time and skill.

Some residents have cried as they walked through the rubble of their homes. Others shared amazing stories of survival as they surveyed the twisted metal and smoking ruins lefts behind by the fire.

Ranch managers Don and Martha Grimm barely escaped with only the clothes they were wearing.

The couple, both in their 70s, held hands as they returned to their neighborhood to find ruins where their home once stood. Martha Grimm broke down in tears.

"We didn't have a chance to react," she said. "It was here, and we got out with the clothes on our back. All of our memories, everything is gone."

Don Grimm said he was surprised to find chickens, horses and llamas on the ranch had survived the fire. But 10 sheep in a barn didn't make it.

The cause of the blaze was unknown, but officials investigating the blaze spent Tuesday surveying a burned-out shed next to a two-story home in the community of Cobb, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The house was unscathed, but the fire charred a hill south of the home after possibly igniting in or near the small shed, the newspaper reported.

The Lake County fire and the blaze about 120 miles to the southeast have displaced 23,000 people and were the worst of a dozen wildfires burning in the state.

The wildfire burning 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 percent contained. It was threatening another 6,400 structures.


Bender reported from San Francisco. Associated Press reporters Paul Elias and Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco, and Janie Har and Haven Daley in Middletown contributed to this report.


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