Lake County woman killed in Valley fire declined offer to leave

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.

By evening, mandatory evacuation orders extended to a wide swath of southern Lake County, reaching south to northern Napa County.

Hittson said that as she left, she spoke to officers turning people away at Highway 175 due to a wildfire, but no one suggested that Anderson Springs residents should leave. It wasn’t until she got home that she realized how serious the fire had become, and she called McWilliams.

“That I left her there - it haunts me,” Hittson said.

Hittson said she called the Sheriff’s Office twice on Saturday and again Sunday morning.

She said that dispatchers appeared to know precisely whom she was inquiring about but kept telling her, “We will get out there when we can.”

Hittson acknowledged that emergency call centers likely were overwhelmed with phone calls at the time but she was nonetheless concerned that her calls weren’t taken seriously enough. She said the manner of dispatchers was “nonchalant.”

“Someone should have gone out there,” Hittson said. “They were making it impossible for civilians to get there and that left us, literally, sitting here. Someone should have gotten to her before it was too late.”

McWilliams’ mind was sharp, Hittson said, but she had major physical disabilities that limited her ability to get around.

“Her hands were very weak; she couldn’t open things or chop food,” Hittson said. “The things you take for granted, those were the things she couldn’t do.”

Lt. Steve Brooks said in a news statement about the woman’s death that the Sheriff’s Office received the first phone call about her at 7:12 p.m. Saturday. The caller asked authorities to help a disabled “elderly” woman.

Deputies and officers responded to the area at 7:29 p.m. but were unable to reach the subdivision because it already had been engulfed in flames, according to Brooks.

The Valley fire started Saturday off High Valley Road and Bottle Rock Road - an area about six miles northeast of McWilliams’s home, on the other side of Cobb Mountain.

Within 30 minutes of the initial report of the fire, Cal Fire asked Lake County deputies to start evacuating residents in that area.

Dispatch lines were flooded with requests from people asking for help evacuating and family members asking authorities to check on their relatives, sheriff’s officials said.

“We were literally going house to house, pulling people out of homes that had already started to catch fire,” Martin said.

But deputies did not make it into Anderson Springs, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

The initial investigation indicated that the woman was unable to evacuate as the fire overcame her house, Martin said.

She is the only person known to have died in the Valley fire so far, though sheriff’s officials are following up on scores of missing person reports, Martin said. Those reports are typical during a major wildfire, and deputies are doing what they can to follow up on each one, he said.

“I am hopeful that no one else lost their lives, but with the intensity and violence of this fire, I do not know,” Martin said.

Fire ravaged the community surrounding McWilliams’ home, destroying most of about 200 houses clustered around the creeks and valleys of Anderson Springs.

On Monday, a signpost marking McWilliams’ address was adorned with red tape - the only site in a scorched block with such a demarcation. Burned apples that had fallen from trees littered the property, which backs up to a tributary of Anderson Creek.

Hittson said that McWilliams’ daughter lives in the East Bay and gave Hittson permission to speak publicly about McWilliams’ life.

She described McWilliams as a fiercely independent woman and devout Buddhist. She had previously lived in India and at some point worked as a special education teacher focusing on children with dyslexia, Hittson said.

Lalley, the family friend, said she had “fallen in love with her new home and community” after settling near Middletown within the past year.

“She was a retired teacher and true adventurer who enjoyed traveling the world,” he wrote in the email.

On Saturday, McWilliams had received her renewed passport in the mail, and was planning to travel to India in November.

‘“She said, ‘It’s probably going to be my last time,’?” Hittson said.

“I think she was going to go by herself. She was very independent, very strong-willed.”

For complete wildfire coverage go to:

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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