California wildfires kill disabled woman, displace 23,000

MIDDLETOWN, Calif. — An explosive wildfire burned largely unchecked Monday after incinerating hundreds of homes and devastating rural communities north of California’s Napa Valley, leaving at least one person dead and sending tens of thousands fleeing down flame-lined streets.

A second massive blaze, less than 200 miles away, destroyed 135 homes as it spread through Amador and Calaveras counties in the Sierra Nevada. That fire was 30 percent contained.

Both fires have displaced 23,000 people, Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said at a news conference with Gov. Jerry Brown.

Over the weekend, the blaze killed an elderly, disabled woman identified by her family as retired teacher Barbara McWilliams, 72.

McWilliams had settled in the Middletown area in the last year, her family said. Her caretaker, Jennifer Hittson, told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat McWilliams had advanced multiple sclerosis and had major physical disabilities that limited her ability to walk. She died trapped in her home.

Others are missing, but officials don’t yet know whether those unaccounted for are elsewhere.

“These fires will take lives and they will cause injuries, and we have to do the best we can, because we are really in a battle with nature, that nature is more powerful than we are,” Brown said.

Authorities flooded with requests for evacuation assistance could not rescue the disabled woman who called for help Saturday evening.

The flames prevented deputies from reaching her subdivision, and rescue workers found her body when the fire subsided, Lake County Sheriff’s Lt. Steve Brooks said.

The fire exploded in size within hours as it chewed through brush and trees parched from four years of drought, destroying 400 homes, two apartment complexes and 10 businesses since igniting Saturday, Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynn Valentine said.

Crews have gained little control of the 95-square-mile blaze, which also damaged water distribution facilities and a massive complex of geothermal power plants known as the Geysers.

Residents fled from Middletown, a town of more than 1,000 residents, dodging smoldering telephone poles, downed power lines and fallen trees as they drove through billowing smoke.

Several hundred people spent Sunday night at the Napa County Fairgrounds and awoke to a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and doughnuts.

Evacuees milled around eating, picking up donated clothing and walking their dogs. Nancy O’Byrne, 57, was evacuated from her home in Middletown, but it’s still standing.

“I am very, very, very lucky. I have my house,” she said, her dog Nellie at her side.

Still, she was worried, as people pitched tents and parked RVs everywhere.

“This place is getting steadily fuller,” she said surveying the fairgrounds.

Michael Alan Patrick, 53, had been there since Saturday and lost his house in the blaze. When it broke out, he had been sitting in a park with his friends.

“It was like looking through a tunnel. You could see the flames coming,” he said. “There was this big old pine tree, it lit up and it went whoosh and it was gone.”

Whole blocks of houses have burned. On the west side of town, house after house was charred to their foundations, with only blackened appliances and twisted metal garage doors still recognizable.

“There are communities now, for example, Cobb, that have almost been 100 percent decimated,” Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said.

Four firefighters who are members of a helicopter crew suffered second-degree burns during the initial attack on the fire.

They remained hospitalized in stable condition.

The governor declared a state of emergency Sunday to free up resources. He had already declared an emergency for the separate 111-square-mile wildfire about 70 miles southeast of Sacramento.

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