Search crews look for people missing in California wildfires


MIDDLETOWN, Calif. (AP) — Crews recovered two more bodies in homes decimated by Northern California wildfires and searched for several other people who are feared dead, even as firefighters gained ground on the massive blazes thanks to cooler weather.

Officials searched the burned-out remains of homes in the Cobb Mountain area of Lake County on Wednesday, looking for a former police reporter and others who authorities fear were killed in a fast-moving blaze.

About 170 miles southeast, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, two bodies were found inside burned-out homes, Calaveras County coroner Kevin Raggio said.

One of the victims was identified as Mark McCloud, 65, who was found inside his residence Tuesday in the Mountain Ranch area. Raggio wouldn’t release the name of the second victim, also found inside a home in Mountain Ranch, because the family has not been notified.

He said both were found in an area where mandatory evacuations were ordered after the fire burning 60 miles southeast of Sacramento exploded in size over the weekend.

The deaths came in addition to an elderly, disabled woman whose body was found Sunday in the ruins of her Lake County home about 100 miles north of San Francisco.

That blaze has consumed more than 109 square miles. Crews were gaining ground on it and more than doubled containment from 15 percent to 35 percent Wednesday evening, Cal Fire said.

The weather was cooperating, with rain falling steadily at an evacuation center where hundreds of people were staying in trucks and tents.

Authorities were searching Lake County’s Cobb Mountain area for a 69-year-old Leonard Neft, who was reported missing by his family. His burned-out car was discovered on a route he would have used to escape.

“We have reports of several others that may have perished in the fire,” Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said during a tour of the disaster zone with state emergency officials.

Neft, who worked for the San Jose Mercury News, last spoke with his family Saturday.

His daughter Joselyn Neft said his wife, Adela Neft, repeatedly called him then to tell him to leave the house, but he told her he didn’t think the fire was coming toward him.

His house was in the same area where Barbara McWilliams, 72, was found dead. She told her caretaker she didn’t want to leave her home near Middletown and would be fine.

Martin was among the state and local officials who traveled in a convoy of government SUVs to inspect the still-smoldering ruins in the devastated Lake County region.

Smoking power lines dangled overhead in one area as officials looked over the hardest-hit places.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” state fire chief Kim Zagaris, said on the tour. “There’s going to be a lot of heartbreak for the folks who live out here.”

Zagaris said the official tally of homes destroyed in the Lake County fire stood at 603 — a figure that’s expected to increase.

Sheriff’s deputies and others have responded to a number of missing-persons reports since the fire broke out Saturday. Many of those unaccounted for could be staying with relatives, on vacation or not affected by the fire, officials said.

The cause of the blaze was unknown, but officials investigating the blaze have been surveying a burned-out shed next to a two-story home in the community of Cobb, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

The Lake County fire and the 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 wildfire burning in the Sierra Nevada had destroyed at least 252 homes and charred more than 110 square miles. It was 47 percent contained Wednesday.

Fire investigators are looking into whether the blaze in Amador and Calaveras was sparked after a live tree came in contact with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power lines, Berlant said.

Barry Anderson, PG&E vice president of emergency preparedness and operations, said the utility is cooperating fully with the Cal Fire investigation and is reviewing the inspection and patrol data for 2014 and 2015 for the area near this fire.

___

Bender reported from San Francisco. Associated Press reporters Paul Elias and Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco, and Janie Har and Haven Daley in Middletown contributed to this report.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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