The Valley Fire claimed the life of an elderly woman with a disability who was unable to evacuate from her house on Saturday as the fire turned into an inferno, swallowing up trees and entire homes, the Lake County Sheriff's Office said Monday.
Officials are not releasing the identity of the woman-- the first reported fatality of the fast-moving fire--but family and friends identified her as 72-year-old Barbara McWilliams who had severe multiple sclerosis, making it difficult for her to move around. Her caretaker said she alerted authorities that McWilliams was unable to get out on her own, but was told they didn't have time to assist.
McWilliams' family told NBC Bay Area that their “beloved mother, grandmother and friend” lost her life over the weekend. The family says McWilliams relocated to Middletown within the last year “and had fallen in love with her new home and community.” The family is asking for donations in McWilliams' honor to be sent to the Red Cross.
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Lake County sheriff's deputies received a call Saturday night to check on McWilliams, but they couldn't get near her house because it was engulfed in flames. Once the fire subsided, crews were able to get to her burned down residence, but it was too late.
McWilliams' caregiver, Jennifer Hittson, posted a photo of McWilliams on Facebook Sunday evening, saying that she had tried her best to get in touch with Cal Fire to get McWilliams out of her house Saturday.
"I'm just sick with grief," Hittson wrote. "Yesterday I left Barbara's house at approximately 3 p.m. When I reached the end of Anderson springs there were officers at the entrance of Anderson Springs directing traffic away from 175. At this point I realized it was a fire, but I didn't realize the seriousness if it."
The fire, which grew to 61,000 acres (95 square miles) Monday or about twice the size of San Francisco, has destroyed at least 400 homes and displaced more than 10,000 in Lake, Sonoma and Napa Counties. Cal Fire officials said Monday that several other residents remain unaccounted for.
Hittson said that when she reached home and checked Facebook, she realized she needed to get McWilliams out of there immediately. "She has no vehicle, as she cannot drive, and I knew she would not even be able to make it off of her porch without help. I called and her phone was busy, so I emailed her," she wrote.
Hittson was able to reach her at 6:30 p.m. "I told her that I was going to call the sheriff to get her. When I called the sheriff, they informed me that they were too busy handling evacuees to check on her, but they would go when they could. I called again after 10 p.m., only to be told the same thing."
Hittson then called Cal Fire who "promised they would get out to her and asked me to call back in 30 minutes for an update." But when she called back, she was told they hadn't been able to get to her. Hittson even checked local evacuation centers to check if McWilliams had made it, but to no avail.
Hittson eventually learned through Facebook that one of McWilliams' neighbors "literally watched as her house burned with her inside."
"I really don't even know why I'm sharing all of this, except I feel like the ball was dropped somewhere, and I feel like although I did everything I could, she could have been saved," Hittson wrote. "I really just cannot believe that this is happening. This is such a nightmare."
The Lake County Sheriff's Office said Monday they received the first report of a wildfire which started in the area of Cobb Mountain around 1:22 p.m. Saturday. Sheriff's deputies started conducting evacuations around 1:51 p.m.
According to the county sheriff’s office spokesperson, Lt. Steve Brooks, the sheriff’s dispatch center was flooded with calls from residents asking for assistance with evacuations, including family members who were requesting law enforcement to check on relatives believed to be in the area engulfed by the fire.
Brooks said that both fire and law enforcement first responders reported to numerous requests for evacuation assistance in the Cobb and Loch Lomond areas.
Hundreds of homes were evacuated during the first few hours. At 7:12 p.m., the dispatch center received a phone call for a request to assist an elderly, disabled female at a residence on Hot Springs Road.
Officers and deputies responded to the area at 7:20 p.m., but were unable to reach the subdivision as it had already been engulfed by flames, Brooks said.
According to Brooks, the woman was “apparently unable to self-evacuate and responders were unable to make it to her home before the fire engulfed the structure.” Once the fire subsided enough for crews to respond, they arrived at the burned down residence to find the remains of a deceased person.
“The Sheriff’s Office and all first responders express their condolences to those who have been affected by this disaster,” Brooks said. "We are hopeful that the fire does not claim any more lives.”