Body count expected to rise in Lake County homes burned by Valley fire

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Firefighters Tuesday made headway in their four-day battle to corral the massive Valley fire that ignited in southern Lake County, though authorities warned the death toll was likely to rise as they received reports of missing people suspected to have perished in the blaze.

With thousands of people evacuated from their homes, a new threat of looting emerged and law enforcement beefed up their patrols to guard against thieves seeking to plunder amid the destruction and chaos wrought by the flames.

The fire, which erupted Saturday atop Cobb Mountain, grew by 200 acres during the day Tuesday to cover a total of 67,200 acres nightfall. Light rain was expected to aid firefighters today but also possibly bring unwelcome winds.

More than 7,600 structures remain under threat from the flames, which extend into Napa and Sonoma counties.

Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said there were likely more deaths due to fast-moving fire, which killed an Anderson Springs woman who was discovered Sunday in the burned remains of her home. She is the only confirmed fatality so far.

The additional fatalities are likely in the Cobb area, the sheriff said.

Four people are missing, Martin said, but the search for bodies — aided by the cadaver dogs — must wait until more of the fire is brought under control and conditions improve.

A 69-year-old man whose home in Anderson Springs was destroyed by the fire was said to be missing by his family, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Tuesday. Leonard Neft, a former police reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, last spoke with his family on Saturday evening as the fire raced through the area.

Dozens of law enforcement officers were on patrol in the Hidden Valley Lake and Middletown areas, following reports of post-fire looting and two arrests. In one case, suspected looters were arrested Monday with burned-out safes in their vehicle and other suspects have been taken into custody, Martin said Tuesday.

A 26-year-old Lakeport man wearing all black clothing was arrested early Tuesday after sheriff’s deputies found a broken BB gun, gloves, a bandana and pliers, channel locks and a cordless drill with a grinder wheel attachment in his car at the intersection of Bottle Rock Road and Highway 29 in Kelseyville, which was closed to traffic due to the fire.

Royce Sterling Moore was arrested on suspicion of possessing burglary tools and a methamphetamine smoking pipe, as well two outstanding warrants.

Martin said deputies are patrolling the fire area but are unable to stand guard at individual homes. Middletown and Hidden Valley Lake are the most vulnerable because that’s where the most homes were left standing, Martin said.

“It’s disgusting that some people would take advantage of others at a tragic time like this,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s happening.”

The fire made a run to the southeast farther into Napa County Tuesday afternoon, covering a few hundred acres south of Butts Canyon, Cal Fire spokesman Paul Lowenthal said. Overall, containment doubled during the day to 30 percent, the fire agency said.

An air attack was underway and firefighters on the ground were attempting to steer the flames toward an area burned last year that currently is light on fuels, Lowenthal said. About 2,360 firefighters were battling the blaze.

There were no communities immediately threatened and the run wasn’t generating any new evacuations. Pope Valley is the closest area on the southern flank, sitting southeast of the fire.

The fire’s westward spread into Sonoma County, in the Mayacmas Mountains where The Geysers geothermal power plants operate, remained in check Tuesday, Lowenthal said.

Firefighters were able to get in and establish containment lines as the blaze died down, he said.

A corps of firefighters on six engines from Sonoma and Marin counties remained in the mountains Tuesday protecting the geothermal facilities and putting out spot fires.

Cal Fire’s estimate of homes lost remained at 585 Tuesday, but assessment crews continued to fan out into the burned areas, working on damage updates.

PG&E said 7,200 customers lost power due to the fire, a substantial number of them in evacuated areas. The utility has only been able to access 15 percent of the fire-damaged area and can’t estimate when power will be restored, spokeswoman Jacqueline Ratto said.

Residents of Clearlake Riviera, Riviera West and Riviera Heights were allowed to return home Tuesday morning, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said. The evacuation was called by the sheriff rather than Cal Fire.

Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown said he empathized with residents who are anxious to return to their homes on Cobb Mountain, where several communities were demolished as the fire raced toward Middletown on Saturday, when the blaze blackened 25,000 acres.

“It’s been my home forever and I know the attachment to it,” Brown said. But it’s still an active fire zone and too dangerous to allow the public to enter, he said.

Brown said he had been back up the mountain several times and found it “no less shocking each time I go up there.”

A shift in the weather set in Tuesday afternoon as leaves were blowing briskly at the Lakeport base camp where fire officials were managing the massive effort, Lowenthal said. A weather map showed precipitation approaching from the southwest, and the National Weather Service forecast one-tenth to one-quarter inch of rain in Middletown today, with a high temperature of 67 and afternoon wind of 5 to 10 mph.

Lakeport Unified, Upper Lake Union High, Upper Lake Union Elementary, and Lucerne Elementary School Districts will be returning to school today, said Robert Young, a county schools spokesman. Kelseyville Unified and Konocti Unified School District will be returning to school on Monday, and officials hope to open Middletown schools on Monday, as well, but the situation is unpredictable, he said.

Calistoga High School’s football game Friday against Rincon Valley Christian has been moved to the high school instead of the Napa County Fairgrounds, which are occupied by fire relief efforts. Kickoff is 4 p.m.

Highway 29 was opened to traffic between Kelseyville and the intersection of Highway 53 in Lower Lake Tuesday night. Highway 29 south of Highway 53 remains closed to all non-emergency traffic.

Feeder roads along the south side of Highway 29 between Kelseyville and Highway 53 remain closed to all traffic except for residents and employees of businesses, including vineyards.

Sonoma County’s Board of Supervisors Tuesday learned as many as 15 county employees may have lost their homes in the Valley fire and subsequently approved an emergency resolution to help dozens of county employees who live in the fire zone.

Of Sonoma County’s 4,000-plus employees, 49 full-time and nine part-time workers have homes caught within the fire zone. Of those, at least 37 people were evacuated and three lost their homes. Another employee’s home was seriously damaged, and an unofficial count could set the number of homes lost to 15, according to Christina Cramer, the county’s human resources director.

For complete wildfire coverage go to: www.pressdemocrat.com/wildfire

Staff Writers Glenda Anderson and Paul Payne contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. Staff Writer Randi Rossmann is at 521-5412 or randi.rossman@pressdemocrat.com.

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