Barbara McWilliams’ last words to a caretaker who phoned her Saturday during the first hours of the Valley fire were to say she was fine at home and confident someone would come by if she needed to leave.
“She said, ‘Someone will come,’ ” said Jennifer Hittson of Kelseyville, who delivered groceries, cleaned house and did odd jobs for the 72-year-old woman, who suffered from advanced multiple sclerosis and used a walker to get around.
A neighbor offered to bring her with him to Middletown, but McWilliams declined, according to Hittson.
She was calm at the time they spoke, about 6:30 p.m., Hittson recalled. The caretaker sought to reassure her, promising to phone authorities — a call she said she made twice to the Sheriff’s Office on Saturday and once to Cal Fire, alerting them of a disabled woman who needed rescue.
“I don’t think she realized (the fire) was a threat,” Hittson said.
By that time, wind-driven flames from the wildfire that erupted Saturday on the north side of Cobb Mountain were bearing down on Anderson Springs, a rural community on the southeastern flank of the same peak, about five miles outside Middletown in southern Lake County.
McWilliams, a former teacher, world traveler and practicing Buddhist, had moved to the area a year ago.
Deputies Saturday evening tried to reach her home, at the end of narrow, pot-holed Hot Springs Road, but by the time they arrived, about 7:20 p.m., the area already was engulfed in flames, Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said.
A woman’s body presumed to be that of McWilliams later was found by firefighters in the burned-out residence. The only recognizable things left of the home Monday were the flagstone chimney, a singed air conditioning unit and a toppled metal garbage can.
“I told her, ‘Someone’s going to come and get you; don’t worry, I’m going to call the sheriff,’ ” Hittson, 30, said Monday. “I thought they would go and get her, but no one got out to her.”
The woman’s death was the first reported in the Valley fire, which started about 1:20 p.m. Saturday and exploded in the span of five hours, torching 10,000 acres and dozens of rural homes before moving in on neighborhood blocks in Middletown. By Sunday night, it had burned over 50,000 acres, or 78 square miles, and destroyed as many as 1,000 structures.
Authorities on Monday had yet to officially identify McWilliams as the victim found on Hot Springs Road, but her family released a statement acknowledging her death.
“We are devastated by the death of our beloved mother, grandmother and friend Barbara McWilliams in the Valley fire,” Tom Lalley, a family friend, said in an email.
Martin said coroner’s deputies took the woman’s body into custody late Sunday and that they had not yet gone through the formal process to identify her, which could potentially include using dental or DNA evidence.
Hittson said that as she left McWilliams’ home at about 3 p.m. Saturday they both noticed smoke above the trees but assumed it had drifted over from the Butte fire in Amador and Calaveras counties, southeast of Sacramento. They were not aware that a wildfire had ignited that afternoon, and that it had already begun ripping through rural communities only a few miles away.