Caretaker: Decision to leave wildfire victim 'haunts me'

MIDDLETOWN, Calif. (AP) — 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 McWilliams 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 largely unchecked since Saturday despite a massive firefighting effort. Fueled by drought, it has consumed more than 104 miles and was 15 percent contained Tuesday.

Jennifer Hittson, the caregiver, told the Press Democrat newspaper in Santa Rosa that she left McWilliams' home around 3 p.m. Saturday. She said she was 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 the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection 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., Cal Fire asked for help with evacuations.

He said the sheriff's office received a call about an elderly disabled female at 7:12 p.m. 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 has injured at least four firefighters.

Authorities say 585 homes are known to be destroyed, and that number was expected to rise. Nine thousand homes remain threatened.

Some people still were unaccounted for Tuesday, but authorities said they could be staying with relatives, on vacation or elsewhere and not impacted by the fire.

The Lake County fire and another about 120 miles to the southeast have displaced 23,000 people and are the worst of a dozen wildfires burning in the state. The other blaze, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, has charred nearly 112 miles and was more than one-third contained Tuesday.

Still, 6,400 structures remained threatened with evacuations in Amador and Calaveras counties. The fire has destroyed nearly 200 homes and outbuildings and damaged a dozen more.

East of Fresno, California's largest wildfire has moved away from the Sierra Nevada's Giant Sequoia trees, some of which are 3,000 years old. The fire, sparked by lightning July 31, had charred 217 square miles and was 40 percent contained Tuesday.

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 wind-fueled flames tore through houses and gutted a two-story apartment complex of about 50 units. Some residents returned Tuesday to find their homes reduced to concrete foundations and chimney stacks.

The flames also spread into northern Napa County, but the region's famous wine valley was not threatened.