By Kurtis Alexander and Evan Sernoffsky
Investigators pinpointed a possible origin of the Valley Fire on Tuesday -- a small shed outside a home in the all-but-destroyed town of Cobb -- while firefighters gained ground on the 67,000-acre inferno.
Officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spent the day surveying the burned-out shed near a charred hillside next to a two-story home on the 8000 block of High Valley Road. Property on the north side of the road was untouched, but at least 585 homes went up in flames Saturday as the fire tore south and west through Cobb and Middletown and spread into Napa County. The fire was 15 percent contained Tuesday afternoon.
The area was cordoned off with police tape while investigators worked the scene. Cal Fire officials said the cause of the blaze remains under investigation and would only confirm it started near High Valley Road and Bottle Rock Road, which is near the property where the shed is located.
The property was surrounded by dry grass, pine and oak trees, an arid landscape that fueled the fire as it whipped toward Middletown, forcing thousands to flee. Four firefighters suffered second-degree burns and a 72-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis, Barbara McWilliams, died while trapped in her home outside Middletown.
The family of a former San Jose Mercury News reporter who lives in the town of Anderson Springs, 69-year-old Leonard Neft, said he was missing. Neft's home was destroyed in the fire.
Dan Bennett, who lives across from the property where investigators were working Tuesday, said a man who lives on a mobile home on his land spotted the fire shortly after 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
"He smelled smoke and walked across the street and saw a small grass fire in the yard across the street," said Bennett, who was out of town when the fire happened. He said the man had yelled to a person in an in-law unit on the Bennett's property to call 911.
Parker Mills, a co-owner of the property where the shed is located, said he doesn't believe the fire started on his land. He thinks the fire came down the hill behind his house and torched the shed.
"The shed in question was a woodshed. There is no electricity," Mills said. "There has to be some kind of ignition. I would like to think the fire came in from somewhere else."
No one was on the property when the fire started, said Mills, who was reached at his home in Elk (Mendocino County).
Firefighters gained ground on the burn area Tuesday when cool weather and moderate winds diminished the inferno's power. Crews cut containment lines around 15 percent of the scar of scorched earth that continued to burn erratically around multiple hot spots, Cal Fire officials said.
A smattering of rain could help Wednesday. A few hundredths of an inch was coming to the burn area's eastern border, and two tenths of an inch may fall on the west side, forecasters with National Weather Service said.
"This has been a very destructive fire," said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. "It is likely when all is said and done, up to 1,000 structures may have been destroyed. That will make it one of the five most destructive in our state's history."
Ken Gregory lives in an area north of the home on High Valley Road that was untouched by the fire. He and other neighbors said they heard from firefighters that the blaze started in the shed on High Valley Road and burned fast up the hillside.
"We were warned it would come back this way, but it was blowing so quickly to the south," he said of Saturday's chaotic scene.
Berlant said, "Investigators have been out there in that area working to determine what may have sparked the fire. But what may seem obvious may not actually be the cause of the fire."
An expert in wildfire investigations, who is not working on the Valley Fire, said pinpointing how a wildfire started is challenging and often comes down to eliminating other possible causes.
"You have to rule out all the factors even if the source seems obvious," said Kent Delbon, assistant special agent in charge with U.S. Forest Service's law enforcement division. "Witness interviews is a big portion that takes a lot of time in most cases."
'A massive undertaking'
Investigators will work to follow the fire back to its point of origin by looking at burn patterns, pieces of grass and leaves to get an idea where the fire started, he said. Then comes the tedious part of sifting for evidence.
"With a building or structure fire, your evidence is going to be in that building. Everything is there," Delbon said. "In a wildland fire, our biggest problem is just getting to the general origin. That's just a massive undertaking, and sometimes that's a tremendous obstacle to overcome."
As investigators tried to determine the fire's cause, nearly 2,400 firefighters continued to work the lines, helped by eight helicopters and 232 fire engines. Crews poured in from around the state after Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency over the weekend.
Thousands of residents remain stranded at evacuation shelters in Kelseyville, Clearlake and Calistoga. Some of those evacuees were escorted back into the fire zone for the first time Tuesday to gather pets and livestock that may have survived when the wildfire surged through.
Corinne Cash of Loch Lomond in Lake County was one of many anxiously waiting to see whether the inferno had destroyed her home. She and her husband, Glen, grabbed their miniature Dachshund, Parker, on Saturday afternoon when the fire began to spread.
"Some of the maps show our house is burned up. Some others show that it is not," she said at the Best Western motel in Clearlake. "The worst part is not knowing."
Cash said she only had time to grab the "important and sentimental" things.
Many of her most cherished belongings she feared she'd never see again, including her grandmother's 1930s desk bought in San Francisco and her husband's only picture of his mother.
Evan Sernoffsky and Kurtis Alexander are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers.
How to Help
Donations for victims of the Valley Fire in Lake and Napa counties can be given in these ways:
Redwood Credit Union: Make donations at any North Bay or San Francisco branch or online at www.redwoodcu.org/lakecountyfirevictims. Checks payable to RCU Lake County Fire Victims Fund can be sent to Redwood Credit Union, P.O. Box 6104, Santa Rosa, CA 95406.
Tri Counties Bank: Branches in Lake and Napa counties made an initial donation of $10,000 to help victims of the fire and are accepting donations. Go to www.tcbk.com.
Sift Dessert Bar: Accepting nonperishable items at its five locations in the Bay Area. Go to www.siftdessertbar.com.
Fountaingrove Inn: Accepting clothes and food 24 hours a day at 101 Fountaingrove Parkway in Santa Rosa. Call (707) 578-6101.
Santa Rosa Birth Center: Accepting baby clothes and wipes and other supplies for children at 583 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. Go to www.santarosabirthcenter.com or call (707) 539-1544.
California Cadet Academy: Fundraising campaign at www.disasterrelief911.org.
American Red Cross: Make donations online for "Western Wildfires" at www.redcross.org.
PEP Housing: Accepting donations, including financial contributions, until 10 a.m. Friday at its corporate office, 951 Petaluma Boulevard South, Petaluma.
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