Some say they weren't warned about California wildfires

Search for California Wildfire Missing Goes On

MIDDLETOWN, Calif. (AP) — Two men died after rejecting orders to evacuate. Two others were killed after declining requests by friends and family to leave, but it wasn't clear if they got evacuation notices.

Some survivors say they never even received notice of the most destructive California wildfires in recent memory, raising questions about whether more could have been done to notify residents.

Authorities defended their warnings and rescue attempts, saying they did all they could to reach people in the remote area of homes, many prized for their privacy.

See images of the devastating California wildfires:

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Northern California, Middletown wildfires destroy 400 homes Butte
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Some say they weren't warned about California wildfires
Firefighters keep watch as the 'Valley Fire' continues to flare up in the town of Middletown, California on September 15, 2015. Wildfires sweeping across California are threatening the US state's famed Sequoia trees, with firefighters scrambling to protect the national treasures. AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: A fallen sign lies near a long a line of burnt trees by State Route 175 during the Valley Fire on September 13, 2015 in Middletown, California. The fast-moving fire has consumed 40,000 acres and is currently zero percent contained. (Photo by Stephen Lam/ Getty Images)
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: A playground slide stands undamaged among smoldering rubble during the Valley Fire on September 13, 2015 in Middletown, California. The fast-moving fire has consumed 40,000 acres and is currently zero percent contained. (Photo by Stephen Lam/ Getty Images)
SAN ANDREAS, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: A burned truck and structures are seen at the Butte Fire on September 13, 2015 near San Andreas, California. California governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in Amador and Calaveras counties where the 100-square-mile wildfire has burned scores of structures so far and is threatening 6,400 in the historic Gold Country of the Sierra Nevada foothills. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
An abandoned burned out truck remains in a residential neighborhood near Cobb, California on September 15, 2015. According to Cal Fire, the Valley Fire has burned 585 homes and 67,000 acres (27,114 hectares). The Valley Fire and the Butte Fire, that erupted at the weekend killing at least one person, has forced the evacuation of more than 23,000 people. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Burned out remains of the popular nudist destination, Harbin Hot Springs is seen after the Valley fire roared through the area near Middletown, California on September 14, 2015. Firefighters on Monday battled devastating blazes in northern California that have reduced hundreds of homes to smoldering ruins and killed an elderly disabled woman unable to flee the flames. State disaster officials said the fast-moving infernos in northern California had consumed more than 100,000 acres (more than 50,000 hectares), forcing thousands to flee their homes. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Burned out remains of the popular nudist destination Harbin Hot Springs are seen after the Valley fire roared through the area near Middletown, California on September 14, 2015. According to Cal Fire, the fire has exploded to 60,000 acres and burned hundreds of homes. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: Firefighters with the Marin County Fire Department's Tamalpais Fire Crew monitor a backfire as they battle the Valley Fire on September 13, 2015 near Middletown, California. The fast-moving fire has consumed 50,000 acres after growing 40,000 acres in twelve hours and is currently zero percent contained. (Photo by Stephen Lam/ Getty Images)
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: A home is consumed by the Valley Fire on September 13, 2015 in Middletown, California. The fast-moving fire has consumed 40,000 acres and is currently zero percent contained. (Photo by Stephen Lam/ Getty Images)
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: The evening sky lit by the Valley Fire is seen on September 13, 2015 in Middletown, California.ÊThe fast-moving fire has consumed 50,000 acres after it grew 40,000 acres in twelve hours and is currently zero percent contained. (Photo by Stephen Lam/ Getty Images)
A firefighter douses flames from a backfire while battling the Butte fire near San Andreas, California on September 12, 2015. Wildfires have spread rapidly through northern California, destroying hundreds of homes, forcing thousands of people to flee and injuring four firefighters. AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN ANDREAS, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: Tall flames rise behind a firefighting inmate hand crew member at the Butte Fire are seen on September 13, 2015 near San Andreas, California. California governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in Amador and Calaveras counties where the 100-square-mile wildfire has burned scores of structures so far and is threatening 6,400 in the historic Gold Country of the Sierra Nevada foothills. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: A firefighter with the Marin County Fire Department's Tamalpais Fire Crew ignite a backfire with a driptorch as she battles the Valley Fire on September 13, 2015 near Middletown, California. The fast-moving fire has consumed 50,000 acres after it grew 40,000 acres in twelve hours and is currently zero percent contained. (Photo by Stephen Lam/ Getty Images)
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: A firefighter with the Marin County Fire Department's Tamalpais Fire Crew ignite a backfire with a driptorch as he battles the Valley Fire on September 13, 2015 near Middletown, California. The fast-moving fire has consumed 50,000 acres after it grew 40,000 acres in twelve hours and is currently zero percent contained. (Photo by Stephen Lam/ Getty Images)
A house is engulfed in flames during the Valley fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
A house is engulfed in flames during the Valley fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
A firefighter douses flames from a backfire during the Valley fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
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"You may get that notice, or you may not, depending on how fast that fire is moving. If you can see the fire, you need to be going," said Lynnette Round, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CalFire.

In Calaveras County, Round said 66-year-old Mark McCloud and 82-year-old Owen Goldsmith died after rejecting evacuation orders to leave their Calaveras County homes.

In nearby Lake County, however, evacuation orders were less clear.

The body of 72-year-old Barbara McWilliams, who used a walker, was found in her home in Anderson Springs. Her caregiver, Jennifer Hittson, said there were no evacuation orders when she left McWilliams' home around 3 p.m. Saturday and no indication the fire was that serious.

She asked McWilliams if she wanted to leave but the retired teacher declined, saying the fire didn't seem bad.

The body of former newspaper reporter Leonard Neft, 69, was found near his burnt car after what may have been an attempt to escape, his daughter Joselyn Neft said Friday. His wife had asked him to leave earlier Saturday, but he said the fire looked far away.

The body of Bruce Beven Burns, 65, was found in a building on the Lake County grounds of his brother's recycling business, where Burns also lived. It's unknown why he stayed.

In all, five people died, three of them in Lake County.

High school math teacher Bill Davis, who lives near McWilliams, said he watched the smoke rise, but it wasn't until the electricity failed that he called CalFire and waited on hold for an hour.

"When I finally got through ... they said my street was not on an evacuation order, but you might want to leave. I was never told, 'Get the hell out of there, there's a huge fire coming at you,'" he said.

By 5:30 p.m., with the smoke thicker and helicopters grounded, he knew he should go. "That's when I started rounding up my cats and leaving," he said.

From a previous fire in late July, he knew to expect a recording on his cellphone or look for someone coming through the neighborhood with a bullhorn yelling for people to evacuate.

"None of that happened," he said. His house burned.

The Lake County sheriff's office has declined to respond to repeated phone calls and emails seeking comment on how and when residents were notified. In a statement issued earlier this week, sheriff's Lt. Steve Brooks said CalFire requested evacuation assistance at 1:50 p.m. Saturday but it remains unclear which communities were notified and how.

CalFire spokesman Richard Cordova could not confirm early evacuation details but said that given the speed of the fire, the death toll could have been much higher.

"Any loss of a life is heartfelt, but there should have been a lot more lives lost with the way that fire was moving," he said.

The Lake County fire tore through 62 square miles in 12 hours, burning nearly 600 homes and causing thousands of residents to flee. Lucas Spelman, fire captain for CalFire, said 15,400 people were under evacuation.

County Supervisor Jim Comstock, 65, who lives in Middletown, said he didn't receive an evacuation order and he believes authorities didn't have time to issue orders in person, given the fire's speed.

Comstock stayed on his 1,700-acre ranch with his wife, daughter and grandchildren, battling the flames. The fire scorched all but 50 acres of his land and spared his house and barn.

"I'm old, and I'm ornery," he said of the reason he stayed.

Gary Herrin defended his 3 acres in Middletown. No one told him to leave, he said, and he wouldn't have anyway.

When the fire hit his street around 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Herrin said, he and several others used water from wells and swimming pools to battle flames, saving eight homes.

At 10 p.m. he collapsed by a swimming pool with about 6 inches of water left. "We were going to stand our ground, and we decided to fight," he said.

The story brought a shudder from James McMullen, a former California state fire marshal who runs a fire consulting business in Davis.

"Some people don't realize how intense a wildfire is and they say, 'Oh, I'll just stay here with my garden hose and leap up on the roof, and yet that's the worst thing they can do,'" he said.

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The story has been corrected to reflect that 1,650 acres of 1,700 acres burned on Jim Comstock's property.

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