Man missing in Valley Fire; burned car found

MIDDLETOWN, Calif. (AP) — A 69-year-old man whose home in a small Northern California town was destroyed by a raging wildfire has been reported missing by his family, and authorities say his burned-out car was found on the route he would have used to escape.

Leonard Neft, a former police reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, last spoke with his family on Saturday evening

His daughter Joselyn Neft said Wednesday that his wife, Adela Neft, repeatedly called him Saturday to tell him to leave, but he told her he didn't think the fire was coming toward him. Authorities say cadaver dogs will be sent in to search, but it's unclear when.

The area where Neft lived is 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.

Others were possibly unaccounted for, but they could be staying with relatives, on vacation or elsewhere and not impacted by the fire.

Aided by drought, the flames have consumed more than 109 square since the fire sped Saturday through rural Lake County, less than 100 miles north of San Francisco. Cooler weather helped crews gain ground and the fire was 30 percent contained Wednesday. Heavy rain was falling in the area Wednesday morning.

Cal Fire tells KTVU investigators have determined the fire likely started near a home in the community of Cobb. There is a partially burned shed investigators are looking at. The cause of the fire is still unclear. 

Cal Fire says this is likely one of the top five most destructive fires in California history. 

On Tuesday, some residents cried as they walked through the rubble of their homes while others shared amazing stories of survival as they surveyed the twisted metal and smoking ruins left behind by the fire.

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

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

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

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

Rancher Lisa Comstock said she and her three dogs survived the raging fire in rural Middletown by jumping into a water trough as flames neared her home.

Comstock was also able to keep her horses nearby as the fire burned around them.

"The flames were coming over that mountain and surrounding this place like there was no tomorrow," she said. "I jumped in the water trough with all the dogs, and the horses came up around. Thank God they just stayed here."

At one point she was sure she wasn't going to make it but talking to her animals helped her and the animals keep calm.

"If this is how I go, I'm not leaving these animals. That's all I could think of," she said.

The cause is unknown, but officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection 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 had charred a hill south of the home after possibly igniting in or near the small shed, the newspaper reports.

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 southeast 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 Aug. 9 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 percent contained on Wednesday. It is still 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.