Valley fire death toll rises to 4

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Family and friends of a Cobb man who is thought to have perished in the Valley fire are struggling to understand why he didn’t flee his home in time to escape the inferno.

The Lake County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday identified Robert Taylor Fletcher, 66, as a presumed victim of the fire based on the discovery of human remains in the area of Fletcher’s home. If confirmed by forensic tests, he would become the fourth person known to have died in the blaze.

Fletcher presumably was at his Humboldt Drive home in the Hobergs area of Cobb on the afternoon of Sept. 12 when flames fanned by a gusting wind rocketed up the forested hillside. As residents frantically scrambled to evacuate, several neighbors of Fletcher’s noticed that he had not emerged from his house.

One neighbor tried calling Fletcher but got no answer. Another notified a fire official who was driving through the neighborhood urging people to get out that Fletcher was still home. The official turned around before reaching the home, beaten back by the advancing firestorm, according to witnesses.

Friends and family members wonder whether Fletcher, whose life in Lake County was marked by a desire for peaceful solitude and privacy, napped through the cacophony while wearing headphones, which was his usual afternoon habit. Or whether he made a conscious decision to hunker down, thinking that was the safest course of action.

“I just think it’s a tragedy, but there wasn’t enough time,” said Michael Salazar of Monterey, Fletcher’s stepbrother. “It was nobody’s fault.”

Bob Bellan, who lived next door to Fletcher for nearly 30 years, said he can’t imagine how Fletcher could have been unaware of the approaching inferno. Bellan described an apocalyptic scene of homes and trees being devoured by flames, explosions and air tankers roaring overhead.

Bellan said he told the fire official that Fletcher was still inside his home, but didn’t have time to wait around as the flames closed in. He barely escaped with two dogs and some family photos. In addition to his home, Bellan lost an irreplaceable collection of model trains and steam engines in the fire, including one formerly used at Berkeley’s Tilden Regional Park. He now is staying with a friend near Loch Lomond.

Lake County Sheriff’s Lt. Steve Brooks on Wednesday said he had no information as to how Fletcher got caught up in the flames. He said the remains were found in the area of Fletcher’s home, without offering specifics.

Searchers with dogs had looked for remains in the area of Fletcher’s home after his family reported him missing Sept. 14, two days after the fire broke out. But Brooks said those searches failed to yield anything. He said detectives returned to the site Tuesday after someone reported seeing something suspicious in the ruins of Fletcher’s home.

Authorities are still searching for Lower Lake resident Robert Edward Litchman, 61, who was reported missing Thursday by a friend who had not seen him since the fire.

Brooks said he is “very surprised” that there have not been more reported casualties, given how quickly the fire spread through populated areas.

“The fire was close enough that it sounded like a jet engine,” the sheriff’s lieutenant said.

At Fletcher’s burned home this week, the shell of a Toyota Sunrader recreational vehicle he used to get around was parked in the driveway. The neighborhood was all but leveled by the fire.

Fletcher grew up in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco and graduated from Drew School there. In addition to being a veteran of the Coast Guard, he obtained his pilot’s license and was an avid scuba diver. He also earned a brown belt in the Korean martial art known as Kuk Sool Won, according to Salazar.

Fletcher never married or had any children. He worked only when he needed to in order to make ends meet. Among his favorite pleasures was reading technical books and service manuals.

“He was very studious,” said Patrick Callahan, a nephew who lives in Carmel. “He liked spending quiet time alone, but when he got around people, he loved telling stories.”

After Fletcher’s mother died in 1996, he used his inheritance to purchase the home in Cobb. But several times a year, he drove to the Central Coast in the Sunrader to visit relatives.

“I want to emphasize what a wonderful guy he was,” said Salazar, a former science teacher and federal police officer. “He never had a bad word for anyone. I never heard an epithet out of his mouth. Not once.”

He said the family greeted news of Fletcher’s presumed death with relief and sadness.

“For those who loved him, we were hoping for some other possible explanation for why we hadn’t heard from him,” Salazar said. “But as time went by, we all realized he likely didn’t escape.”

He said the family is planning a memorial service for Fletcher and hoping to include full military honors as part of the ceremony.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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