Body Found in Home Gutted by Valley Fire Brings Death Toll to 4

Another body has been found in a burned-out home in Northern California, bringing the death toll from a wildfire that at 76,067 acres ranks among California's most destructive to four.

Sheriff's officials found the remains at about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday and believe they belong to 66-year-old Robert Taylor Fletcher, whose home was destroyed by the Valley Fire. He was last seen Sept. 16 but his family last heard from him on Sept. 10.

“Based on the location and evidence found at the Cobb location, the remains are presumed to be those of Robert Taylor Fletcher,” Cal Fire said in a statement.

Officials also said Wednesday that 61-year-old Robert Litchman of Lower Lake is still missing.

A friend, who notified authorities of Litchman's disappearance last Thursday, said he did not have transportation and did not leave his home when told to by law enforcement, Lt. Steve Brooks said. 

Sheriff's detectives went to Litchman's residence and found it had burned during the fire, Brooks said, adding that no human remains were found by detection dogs during a search of the man's property.

Sheriff Brian Martin said Tuesday that his office had received reports of 15 people missing since the fire started. All have been accounted for except Litchman. "We are hopeful these people are located and returned and reunited with their loved ones,'' he said.

The aggressive fire has claimed the lives of three other people. The body of 72-year-old Barbara McWilliams, who used a walker, was found in her burned-down home. The others who died in the Lake County fire are 69-year-old ex-newspaper reporter Leonard Neft and 65-year-old Bruce Beven Burns.

President Barack Obama declared a major disaster on Tuesday for the communities hit by the Valley Fire, which has destroyed at least 1,230 homes. His move releases federal money for recovery and cleanup for the families whose lost their homes.

Residents can apply for grants for home repairs and temporary housing as well as apply for low-cost loans for uninsured property.

Jim Comisky, who spoke on behalf of the South Lake County Fire Protection District at a news conference Wednesday, acknowledged that residents have suffered “horrendous losses.” Nearly 20,000 people were evacuated as the Valley Fire spread and its flames have rendered nearly 3,000 homeless.

He said that county, state and federal officials and representatives of Cal Fire, the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services and Federal Emergency Management Agency will be on hand for a “long time.”

“The relationships we’ve developed over the last four, five, six, seven, eight days are going to carry us through the next couple years in rebuilding our communities that have been lost and affected by the Valley Fire,” he said.

The devastating wildfire that started Sept. 12 stands at 82 percent contained with 118 square miles scorched. Thousands of people fled their homes at the peak of the fire but 4,000-plus firefighters battled the flames round the clock, according to Senator Mike McGuire.

"We are at ground zero of this deadly inferno," he said. "There were nine South County firefighters that lost their homes in the Valley Fire and stayed on the frontlines for the last several days."

Meanwhile, PG&E sent over 1,000 crew members who have replaced roughly 800 poles that were destroyed by the fire, McGuire said, adding that California residents have donated millions to survivors.

"It was devastating to see that it was an inferno of destruction," McGuire added. "If you talk to veterans of Cal Fire or local firefighters in this county, they’ll say they’ve never seen anything like it. The size and speed is unprecedented. In 12 hours, this fire grew to 40,000 acres."

Middletown residents are still returning to what's left of their houses and belongings. Emergency crews have set up places to shower and services for people that lost everything need to get by. The community of Anderson Springs will be able to return home Thursday but the town's water service has not resumed, Cal Fire said.

Nearby in Cobb Mountain, crews still have a lot to do to make the area safe for residents to return. It's one of the last places still closed off to the public.

Governor's Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci reminded Lake County residents whose homes were torched that there is "no silver bullet."

Authorities will use a "patchwork of capability," including hotels, rental properties, trailers and even revitalizing an old resort, to provide housing, he said.

Missing Attachment President Barack Obama declared a major disaster on Tuesday for the communities hit by the Valley Fire that has destroyed at least 1,200 homes and killed at least three people. Jodi Hernandez reports.

According to administrator Matt Perry, Lake County has suffered a roughly $2.1 million loss in property taxes. That number may climb, officials said, as commercial, agricultural and recreational losses are tallied. 

"The truth is that we are seeing what we expected -- actually more than what we expected initially," Ghilarducci said.

California Gov. Jerry Brown requested disaster declarations for the Valley Fire in Lake County as well as another destructive wildfire in Calaveras and Amador counties, about 125 miles east of San Francisco. Federal officials are still working on the request for a disaster declaration for the communities hit by the so-called Butte Fire, said Kelly Huston, deputy director for the governor's Office of Emergency Services.

According to FEMA administrator Craig Fugate, that both fires are "[symptoms] of the underlying drought," which is in its fourth year and shows no signs of abating. He also stressed that people who live in fire-prone areas must take necessary precautions and respond to evacuation orders in a timely fashion.

"There was no indicator that morning when people got up that they would face the fire that came through their community," he said. "When it was time to act, many of them had little or no time to prepare. It's critical that people prepare, know what they’re going to do, but most importantly, do not hesitate when an evacuation order is given."

Fugate added: "We can always rebuild. We never get a second chance when it’s too late."

People who need assistance can call 1-800-621-3362, register online at or by web-enabled mobile devices at Disaster assistance applicants, who have a speech disability or hearing loss and use TTY, should call 1-800-462-7585. Those who use 711 or Video Relay Service should call 1-800-621-3362.

The toll-free telephone numbers will operate from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week until further notice. Applicants should be prepared to provide basic information about themselves and their insurance coverage.

NBC Bay Area's Gillian Edevane contributed to this report.

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