Retired journalist, composer among 5 dead in Northern California fires

Firefighter Sean Norman, center, and search dog handlers Mary Cablk, left, and Lynne Engelbert look over the remains of a home in the Anderson Springs area of a man missing following a wildfire days earlier Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, near Middletown, Calif.
Firefighter Sean Norman, center, and search dog handlers Mary Cablk, left, and Lynne Engelbert look over the remains of a home in the Anderson Springs area of a man missing following a wildfire days earlier Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, near Middletown, Calif. The Associated Press

One was a music composer and teacher. Another was a former newspaper reporter who still listened to his police scanners. One was a retired teacher with multiple sclerosis, but still vibrant. Another, a ham radio enthusiast and San Francisco Giants fan who recently posted he was fighting off gophers in his vegetable garden.

In total, five people are known to have perished in the twin infernos that swept for miles through hilly acres in Northern California this past week, one centered in Calaveras County, the other in Lake County.

Helped by cool weather, firefighters continued to encircle the two blazes Thursday, as investigators looked into potential causes.

The Valley fire was listed as 35 percent contained after burning more than 73,700 acres and at least 585 residences. Lake County sheriff’s officials said the fire – already listed as the ninth-most destructive in state history in terms of houses burned – was first reported Saturday afternoon as a shed fire near the town of Cobb.

The 9-day-old Butte fire, which has scorched 70,760 acres and destroyed at least 365 homes, was 55 percent contained Thursday evening. Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said his agency is investigating with the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. the possibility that the fire ignited when a tree branch hit a power line.

Search crews with cadaver dogs continue to comb for victims amid the fires’ damage and ashes.

“Knowing how fast these fires moved, and how much destruction they left, it would not surprise me if more bodies are found,” Berlant said. “We are praying there are no more.”

Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin on Thursday night addressed about 500 people, most of them evacuees, at the Napa County Fairgrounds, warning that the firefight is not yet done, and grim discoveries likely remain to be found. “I hate to say it, but I expect to find more (bodies),” he said.

The fairgrounds are serving as a main evacuation center. There are tents, tables heaped with used clothing, biker clubs barbecuing hot dogs for the evacuees, an RV from the Department of Veterans Affairs, an American Red Cross outlet and a mobile veterinary clinic.

The five individuals reported dead shared one commonality: Either they failed to heed officials’ warnings to evacuate or may not have received warning, leaving them unaware until too late the danger that was descending on them.

Two of the victims were found in one community, Anderson Springs, a subdivision of 200 homes nestled in the wooded hills near Middletown, in Lake County. Those homes were consumed Saturday night when fire swept down a mountainside so fast that few saw it coming. All but nine houses were destroyed, Anderson Springs resident Peggy Rose said.

The community gained Internet notoriety this week, thanks to one resident’s profanity-punctuated video of his family’s nighttime car ride from their home in Anderson Springs through a hellish landscape of flames – a graphic depiction of the horror of waiting until the last minute to escape.

Cal Fire officials say one of the dead, discovered Wednesday near Anderson Springs, is believed to be Leonard Neft, 69, a former San Jose Mercury News police beat reporter whose family has lived for generations in the Cobb area of Lake County.

Neft talked on the phone Saturday with his wife, who lives separately in Sacramento. He told her he had received an automated phone call that afternoon from county officials warning about the fire but was uncertain about whether he should leave. Neft finally decided to leave that evening, but it was too late. His burned car was found later.

A former neighbor called Neft the unofficial “mayor of Anderson Springs,” a friendly, fitness-oriented person who bought groceries for the disabled woman next door, let neighborhood kids play on his swing set and enthusiastically shared his ideas about healthy foods with neighbors.

“I can imagine that Len would have waited as long as he could to get out,” said Becky Levi, who moved away from the area a few years ago. “He would not have wanted to leave.

“We had ridden out fires before, where we watched the fire on the mountain and it didn’t come down to us. We always felt Anderson Springs was a safe haven. It is shocking it is gone.”

On Thursday, Neft’s house was a pile of rubble and twisted metal. The swing set, however, still stood.

Nearby in the same subdivision, Barbara McWilliams, 72, a retired schoolteacher who was disabled, also was uncertain that Saturday afternoon whether to leave, friends told various new media. She did not have a car, but figured someone would give her a lift if need be.

Lake County officials could not be reached to comment on their evacuation efforts in Anderson Springs. However, in a press statement Thursday, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman said the department received a call at 7:12 p.m from a concerned person who knew McWilliams, saying she believed the woman was still in her home. Rescuers attempted to get to McWilliams’ house at 7:29 p.m., according to the release, but the area was in flames.

“The resident was apparently unable to self-evacuate and responders were unable to make it to her home before the fire engulfed the structure,” the statement said. “After the fire subsided enough for crews to respond, personnel arrived at the burned down residence on Hot Springs Road to find the remains of a deceased person.”

Peggy Rose, 67, who has lived in Anderson Springs for six years, said she did not receive a call to evacuate, nor did she see anyone in the neighborhood issuing warnings. She was warned by a neighbor that the fire was on its way. She doesn’t blame officials.

“The resources were stretched so thin and the fire moved so incredibly fast,” she said. “You don’t expect some authority somewhere to take care of things. As a community, we’re quite capable of organizing for ourselves. We made an effort to make that official, but it was hit or miss.”

Cal Fire’s Berlant said the speed of the Valley fire that first day was dramatic, and evacuations were at times chaotic. In some cases, people refused to leave their homes.

Berlant said Cal Fire and local authorities will conduct an “after action” review “where we don’t second-guess. We look at what worked, what didn’t, and what improvements can be made.”

A third body found Wednesday morning in the Hidden Valley area of Lake County “is presumed to be those of Bruce Beven Burns, who was reported missing on Sept. 15,” Cal Fire officials said in the press statement. Burns’ sister-in-law, Shirley Burns, told San Francisco television station KRON that Burns, 65, was burly, bearded and gentle, like a teddy bear. He sold items at a Clear Lake flea market and lived in a trailer at the family’s metal recycling yard.

In Calaveras County, officials have identified two fire fatalities, Mark McCloud, 66, of the Mountain Ranch area, east of the town of San Andreas, and Owen Goldsmith, 82, a music composer and teacher who lived in the M-24 Ranch subdivision a few miles away.

Sgt. Anthony Eberhardt of the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office said both lived in areas where mandatory evacuation calls were issued. Evacuations typically involve various means, including reverse-911 calls and people knocking door-to-door, Eberhardt said. The officer said he did not know whether Goldsmith and McCloud were personally contacted about the evacuation order or why they were still in the area when the fire came through.

Although the Sheriff’s Office received reports of other missing people, Eberhardt said the majority of them had been located at shelters or evacuation centers.

McCloud was a relative newcomer to the foothills. He described himself on Internet sites as a native of Wisconsin, and a worker in the semiconductor industry, with an interest in ham radio, tinkering, music, astronomy, astrophotography and the Giants.

“I have been up in this neck of the woods going on 8 years now and it is great,” he wrote on a ham radio site. “Lots of wildlife, trees and a whole lot of room.

“I’m keeping myself busy with antenna projects and my main thing for the summer is the vegetable garden. I’ve expanded it to double its size and, in doing so, have realized a gopher problem. So I am installing wire cages for all my vegetables.”

Goldsmith, described on Internet music sites as a Texas native, was a full-time music writer who graduated magna cum laude from San Francisco State University in 1959. He studied in Vienna and Venice, taught choirs, orchestra and music theory at high schools and wrote more than 80 compositions, according to the Alfred Music website.

Goldsmith lived in a secluded house at the bottom of a mountain off a windy and steep unpaved road, several miles from the nearest town, Mountain Ranch. The house once commanded views of the surrounding leafy valley, but on Thursday, the only view in sight was that of charred tree trunks and smoldering grass.

Goldsmith’s house was completely torched and only a few metal pieces, two burned-out cars and a concrete retaining wall remained. The only dash of color was a ribbon of yellow police tape. The fire spared other homes in the area, including two luxury houses perched above a hill.

PG&E officials posted a statement on the company’s website Thursday saying the utility is cooperating with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in finding the source of the Butte fire – which may involve one of its power lines.

“While we don’t have all the facts yet, a live tree may have contacted a PG&E line in the vicinity of the ignition point,” said Barry Anderson, PG&E vice president of emergency preparedness and operations. “We don’t know if a tree making contact with our line caused the fire. That will be the subject of the Cal Fire investigation, and these types of investigations take time.”

Anderson said in a statement that the utility is reviewing inspection and patrol data for the past two years for the area near the tree, a location he did not specify. That data will be shared with Cal Fire investigators.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak. The Bee’s Richard Chang, Cathy Locke and Ryan Lillis contributed to this report.