Remains of two more Valley fire victims found in Lake County
Leonard Neft, of Anderson Springs, was believed to have perished in the Valley fire. His body was found Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015. (WWW.FACEBOOK.COM)
ANDERSON SPRINGS — Searching for the scent of death, teams of cadaver dogs Thursday canvassed the blackened ruins of homes devoured by the Valley fire as the 5-day-old wildfire continued to expand.
The death toll rose Thursday as authorities confirmed that three people are now believed to have perished in the devastating blaze following the discovery of two more bodies in Hidden Valley and Anderson Springs.Firefighters continued efforts to stamp out stubborn hot spots ahead of what is predicted to be another scorching hot weekend. The most active fronts were in the southeast section of the fire zone, in the area of Aetna Springs, near Pope Valley, and also areas from the Geysers all the way through Cobb, Loch Lomond and Seigler Springs, said Paul Lowenthal, assistant fire marshal for Santa Rosa Fire department and a spokesman for agencies battling the Valley fire.
The fire, which had grown to 73,700 acres by Thursday night and stretched across portions of Lake, Sonoma and Napa counties, was only 35 percent contained, Cal Fire reported. More than 3,900 firefighters were battling the blaze.Residents of Berryessa Estates were allowed to return to their homes Thursday in Napa County, but thousands of evacuees grow more anxious by the day for word on when they might be able to go home, or to what is left of the structures. Judging by the amount of fire damage that was still apparent Thursday in areas off-limits to the public, it could be a long wait.
Smoke rose Thursday in numerous heavily forested locations on the east side of Cobb Mountain, while in and around communities along Highway 175, massive tree stumps crackled with flames. On Butts Canyon Road on the fire's southeastern flank, firefighters cruising in dozens of engines moved up and down the otherwise deserted road seeking access to the front lines.
But away from the feverish firefight, a much quieter and more somber exercise was carried out Thursday in communities ravaged by the flames. There, dogs scrambled through the rubble of entire neighborhoods, searching for bodies.
Human remains were located Wednesday in two areas ravaged by the fire, the Lake County Sheriff's Office announced Thursday. Based on the location and other evidence, it is believed the victims are Bruce Beven Burns, of Hidden Valley Lake, and Leonard Neft, of Anderson Springs, sheriff's Lt. Steve Brooks said.
The fire's first victim, Barbara McWilliams, 72, of Anderson Springs, was discovered Sunday.
Burns, 65, a scrap metal trader and flea market vendor, was found inside a building at his brother's industrial recycling business, where he lived in a travel trailer and worked as a caretaker/watchman.
It's unclear why he was in the shop, his brother, Mike Burns, said Thursday.
"It's possible he went around to fight the fire and might have been overcome," he said.
The family was stunned and having difficulty grasping their new reality, which included the loss of the business, Burns Enterprises, located off Highway 29 about a half-mile south of Hidden Valley Lake.
Bruce Burns did not leave when his nephew came to check on him Saturday afternoon as the fire headed toward Middletown, Mike Burns said.
"My boy left, he stayed there," Mike Burns said.
While he was a bear of a man, Bruce Burns was in ill health and could not have fled on foot. He had diabetes and had his spleen removed some time ago. His truck was not operational, but he could have driven away on a backhoe, his brother said.
"His health wasn't that good. He would have passed out if he ran 100 feet," Mike Burns said.
Bruce Burns moved onto the Middletown-area property several years ago, after code regulators in Mendocino County shut down his recycling business, family said. His finances spiraled downward and he lost his home in Fort Bragg, according to family.
The large, bearded man reminded Mike Burns' wife, Shirley, of a teddy bear.
"If you sat down with him, he'd talk your leg off," Shirley Burns said. "He liked to be around family and people. He was a likable, huggable, sweet kind of guy."
Neft, 69, a retired reporter, last spoke to his family on the phone as the fire encircled his home on Rose Anderson Road in Anderson Springs, wife Adela Neft told a Fox television affiliate in Sacramento.
According to the television report, Leonard Neft told his wife he was surrounded by flames but planned to drive up the mountain and hike to safety. It was the last conversation she had with him. The family later posted on Facebook a picture of his burned-out Honda Civic, surrounded by charred rubble.
Neft worked as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News for 16 years before retiring in 1985, according to the Pacific Media Workers Guild. He wrote obituaries and served as the night police reporter, covering crime and breaking news.
"He had hundreds of sources that called him with tips," said his former editor, Frank Sweeney. "He was one of the nicest guys that ever worked with the Mercury News. He had a way with people."
He was a humble man who "put his heart and soul" into the stories he wrote, particularly the obituaries, said Caroline Grannan, a San Francisco Chronicle copy editor who worked with Neft at the Mercury News in the '80s. He liked to highlight the lives of regular people, Sweeney said.
"He said everyone deserved an obituary, not just famous people," he said.
After retiring, he moved to Lake County and worked for the Lake County Record-Bee on its community desk. He became co-owner of a Chevron gas station in Middletown on the corner of Highway 29 and Wardlaw Street, according to deli clerk Khalida Wukawitz, who said Neft hired her about a decade ago.
Wukawitz said the pair grew close despite her Palestinian heritage and the fact he was Jewish.
"We had this bond between us," Wukawitz said while preparing sandwiches Thursday and wiping away tears. "We always say, 'If we could find another 10,000 like us, we could solve the problems in the Middle East.' I loved him dearly."
Wukawitz said Neft grew more reclusive in recent years, venturing into town only a couple of times a month for groceries and to visit with friends. Still, she said no one expected him to get caught by the flames.
"I'm kind of mad he didn't get out," Wukawitz said. "He's smart."
On Thursday afternoon, the car, and everything else that remained of Neft's life, was bathed in an afternoon glow from sunlight streaming between the burned sentries of large trees. The home is situated on a lot high in the hills, with a view of mountains beyond.
The burned car appeared to be parked within inches of steps leading to the home. Dead koi fish floated in a small pond, around which were scattered several broken statues and a sign that read, "Bless my garden."
A statuette of a winged fairy remained upright on a rock, her face tilted to the sky. To the rear of the house sat the burned skeleton of a child's swingset.
The human remains believed to be those of Neft and Burns were found during a search of the fire area on Wednesday by personnel from the sheriff's office, Cal Fire, California Fish and Wildlife, and dogs and handlers from the California Office of Emergency Service Human Remains detection office.
Searchers made another sweep of the Anderson Springs and Hidden Valley Lake neighborhoods Thursday looking for more fire victims. Lake County Sheriff's Sgt. Corey Pavlich said the areas were selected because human remains were discovered there and not because authorities have taken new reports of people missing there.
The dogs, a Labrador retriever named Dublin and a Belgian Malmot named Tosca, were on loan from the San Bernadino County Sheriff's Department. The pair, along with handlers Peter Sellas and Sharon Gattas, arrived in Lake County early Thursday.
After being let loose by their handlers, the two dogs scrambled over the burned rubble of homes. They are trained to alert their handlers to the tell-tale smells by, in Dublin's case, barking, and in Tosca's, sitting.
Burned structures present unique challenges for the dogs, Sellars said, including the potential for walking on exposed nails or over hot items. But the animals seemed eager to do their jobs Thursday, which come with the reward of chew toys.
While the dogs find the searches a challenging game, their handlers are acutely aware of the arena in which it's being played.
"You work in people's homes and see what they lost," Sellars said.
Anyone who has been unable to locate friends or family since the fire started on Saturday can contact the sheriff's office at (707) 263-2690 to report them missing.
An army of utility and communications workers canvassed the region carrying out the herculean task of restoring power and rebuilding infrastructure. PG&E's staging area at the Middletown Bible Church resembled a small city, home to hundreds of the utility's signature blue trucks.
Denny Boyles, a PG&E spokesman, said the utility had assessed damage in about three-quarters of the fire area as of Thursday. It has 614 power poles in need of repair or replacement. Crews have replaced 172 poles and made repairs to 169 transformers. They also repaired a high-voltage transmission line running from Calistoga to Middletown, he said.
Power has been restored to parts of downtown Middletown, in some cases to help first responders working in the area, Boyles said.
The utility doesn't have an estimate on the time it will need to fully restore electricity supply and equipment throughout the area.
"That will depend on fire conditions," Boyles said. "Until the fire is out, we can't complete that assessment."
Deputies arrested three men Thursday suspected of seeking to burglarize homes that were abandoned by residents forced to flee the Valley fire. The three men, who officials said are from San Francisco and Brisbane, could not account for their presence in the closed fire area, deputies said. One had a loaded .40 caliber semiautomatic pistol tucked under a heavy jacket.
At least two other men have been arrested this week by deputies on the alert for looters and burglars casing homes in the fire zone.
For complete wildfire coverage go to: www.pressdemocrat.com/wildfire.
Staff Writers Mary Callahan, Martin Espinoza and Paul Payne contributed to this story.
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