MIDDLETOWN, Calif. (AP) – Cadaver dogs and their handlers searched Wednesday for a man feared to have perished in a fast-moving Northern California wildfire, and the local sheriff says he expects several more bodies will eventually be found amid the ashes.
An elderly, disabled woman’s body was found Monday in the ruins of her destroyed Lake County home, and authorities were searching nearby for a 69-year-old man reported missing by his family. His burned-out car was found on the route he would have used to escape.
“We’ve already had a confirmed loss of one life,” Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said while on a tour of the disaster zone with state emergency officials. “We have reports of several others that may have perished in the fire.”
State and local officials in a convoy of government-issued SUVs inspected the devastated region about 100 miles north of San Francisco Wednesday morning, viewing still-smoldering ruins.
Smoking power lines dangled overhead. The convoy stopped frequently to view the hardest-hit areas.
The officials are contemplating asking President Barack Obama for emergency federal assistance. Obama and Gov. Jerry Brown are expected to discuss the matter Wednesday.
“It’s not a pretty picture,” said Kim Zagaris, the state’s fire chief, on the tour. “There’s going to be a lot of heart break for the folks who live out here.”
Zagaris said officials have counted 603 homes destroyed, but that he expects that number to rise.
Sheriff’s deputies and others have responded to a number of missing-persons reports since the fire broke out on Saturday. Many of those unaccounted for could be staying with relatives, on vacation or not affected by the fire, officials said.
Aided by drought, the fire has consumed more than 109 square miles since the flames sped Saturday through rural Lake County, less than 100 miles north of San Francisco.
Crews are gaining ground on the fire and were able to double containment from 15 percent to 30 percent Wednesday, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Dan Olson said.
The weather was cooperating, with heavy rain falling Wednesday morning.
“We’re trying to use that the best we can,” Olson said. “Hopefully we get a little bit more rain.”
Some residents have cried as they walked through the rubble of their homes. Other residents hared amazing stories of survival as they surveyed the twisted metal and smoking ruins lefts behind by the fire.
Ranch managers Don and Martha Grimm barely escaped with only the clothes they were wearing.
The couple, both in their 70s, held hands as they returned to their neighborhood to find ruins where their home once stood. Martha Grimm broke down in tears.
“We didn’t have a chance to react,” she said. “It was here, and we got out with the clothes on our back. All of our memories, everything is gone.”
Don Grimm said he was surprised to find chickens, horses and llamas on the ranch had survived the fire. But 10 sheep in a barn didn’t make it.
Rancher Lisa Comstock said she and her three dogs survived the raging fire in rural Middletown by jumping into a water trough as flames neared her home.
Comstock was also able to keep her horses nearby as the fire burned around them. “The flames were coming over that mountain and surrounding this place like there was no tomorrow,” she said.
At one point she was sure she wasn’t going to make it. But talking to her animals helped her and the animals keep calm.
“If this is how I go, I’m not leaving these animals. That’s all I could think of,” she said.
The cause of the blaze was unknown, but officials investigating the blaze spent Tuesday surveying a burned-out shed next to a two-story home in the community of Cobb, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
The house was unscathed, but the fire had charred a hill south of the home after possibly igniting in or near the small shed, the newspaper reported.
Authorities say 585 homes were known to be destroyed, and the number was expected to increase. Another 9,000 structures remained threatened.
The Lake County fire and another blaze about 120 miles to the southeast have displaced 23,000 people and were the worst of a dozen wildfires burning in the state. The Lake County fire spread into northern Napa County, but the region’s famous wine valley was not threatened.
Lake County has been particularly hard-hit. In late July, a wildfire east of Clear Lake destroyed 43 homes as it spread across more than 100 square miles. Another fire erupted Aug. 9 several miles from the community of Lower Lake.
A separate destructive wildfire burning less than 200 miles away in the Sierra Nevada had destroyed at least 233 homes. The blaze in Amador and Calaveras counties has charred more than 110 square miles and was 45 percent contained on Wednesday. It was threatening another 6,400 structures.
East of Fresno, California’s largest wildfire had moved away from the Sierra Nevada’s Giant Sequoia trees, some of which are 3,000 years old.