Sandy Picciano lived on a small hill in the foothills hamlet of Loma Rica on a dead-end gravel road. In the early morning hours Monday, that idyllic setting became a death trap.
Picciano died sometime after midnight, neighbors say, attempting to flee as the Cascade Fire rushed through the Yuba County foothills, consuming house after house in a flash – one of the many fires that swept through Northern California late Sunday. Picciano appears to have driven her pickup truck through a barbed wire fence and into a horse paddock a few yards from her home, where the vehicle was consumed in flames.
Yuba County officials confirmed that one person died in the fire after driving off a road but did not identify the victim as of Tuesday afternoon, saying they had not yet gotten a positive identification.
But three residents of the area who knew Picciano say it appears she became confused and lost track of the driveway amid heavy smoke that night. Her charred vehicle sat in the paddock Tuesday afternoon, its hood pushed up against a tree.
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One neighbor, John Billingsley, who lived across the lane from Picciano, said smoke was so thick, “you could just see a little bit in front of your hood.”
A neighbor, Nadine Webb, said she only managed to escape the flames that night by following a neighbor’s taillights ahead of her. She described Picciano as a kindly woman “with a heart of gold” who liked to tend to neighborhood animals. Picciano, 77, was suffering from cancer, Webb said.
Unlike other areas, where local officials were able to call or knock on doors beforehand, residents of Picciano’s rural neighborhood said there was no formal warning before the fire hit.
Eric Gravelle said he awoke, looked out his back sliding-glass door and saw flames coming up the hill. By the time he and his wife made it out to their car, flames had raced past their house and were headed toward Picciano’s hill 100 yards away.
Gravelle said he honked his horn to wake neighbors. Another resident pounded on doors. None of the neighbors interviewed by The Bee said they saw Picciano that morning. So far, Picciano appears to be the only death in Yuba County. Several other calls had come in for missing residents, county officials said, but welfare checks found all others to be alive.
Billingsley said he counted 15 destroyed homes out of about 24 in the area. All the homes on the hill where Picciano lived were destroyed.
Fires continued to burn Tuesday in the foothill counties of Yuba, Nevada and Butte, officials said, in what authorities have dubbed the Wind Fire Complex. Those fires had consumed 250 structures and burned 16,000 acres.
The Loma Rica area, a 25-minute drive from Marysville, was hard hit. The public discussion group on the Loma Rica/Browns Valley Emergency Alert Facebook page was overflowing Tuesday with plaintive messages about lost and stranded house pets and horses that had been left behind. Others desperately sought updates about their homes and businesses.
A picture of two German shepherds, appearing agitated, was posted under an alert that they had been seen running around near the Oroville cemetery. Horse owners shared photographs of their prized animals.
One woman who lived southwest of Loma Rica posted a note saying her husband would check on animals around the Smith Road area. At one couple’s request, the man went onto the property and found four stallions, three mares, an indoor cat – and a metal tub full of two dozen chicks – alive and well. He fed and watered the strangers’ animals.
But tensions also were high, as online spats broke out Tuesday between luckier residents complaining about traffic delays and missed work and those who had lost everything or were still uncertain of the fate of their homes. Or their relatives.
Among the latter were the Coolidge family. Candice Coolidge said her grandfather, Loma Rica resident Stanley Coolidge, 78, a longtime attorney practicing civil and family law in Yuba City, hasn’t answered the phone since the fire hit, and has yet to be found.
“I started driving back and forth to the shelters, trying to call. No one was answering,” she said. Her sister Courtney and uncle joined her in the search, to no avail.
The Coolidges continue to hold out hope, but Candice sounded tired Tuesday, her family’s agonizing wait for word – any word – stretching into another day. “We called the hospitals numerous times, called the sheriff’s office, gave my name and phone number – I was kind of relentless.
“This is devastating for everybody. This waiting – I know they’re doing what they can – but it’s really hard to wait and wonder,” she said. Happier memories are getting her through. “He was always pulling coins from behind your ear. He had that funny side to him.”
The handful of foothills fires appeared to ease up Tuesday. In Nevada County, residents of Lake Wildwood were allowed to return to their homes Tuesday after being evacuated earlier. But officials warned that expected winds on Thursday could fan flames.
Other area residents remained at evacuation centers.
Chris Martin, at an evacuation center in the Nevada County fairgrounds, said she and her husband Glen were sleeping in their basement Sunday night because winds were so strong they feared a tree might topple onto their house. They were awakened by a neighbor knocking on their door, warning them of approaching fire.
“My husband was smart enough to grab the RV keys so we are in much better shape than most people,” she said.
The fires left burning power poles, some still standing, some draped across fields, dotting the landscape around the devastated town of Loma Rica on Tuesday.
Pacific Gas and Electric crews were out replacing collapsed poles in an effort to restore power to the area, where many homes had burned. The Dollar General store was still standing, along with Loma Rica Elementary School, but many of the surrounding homes were nothing but charred rubble.
Lucy and Carl Cortez had waited out the fire, refusing to leave their cows despite a mandatory evacuation. Their well-irrigated farm had been spared while neighboring properties burned. Their grown sons, Chito and Victor, had managed to get in Monday night to check on them. Chito Cortez said he was putting out spot fires all night and could see at least a dozen fires burning in the surrounding hills after nightfall.
“It was wild,” he said.