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California wildfires: Another 250 homes destroyed, but a dog and owner are reunited

The Butte fire in Northern California has destroyed more than 500 homes. But even amid the tragedy, the reunion of a dog and his owner brings joy. 

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    Associated Press reporter Brian Skoloff pets "Thumper," a 70-pound lab, moments after the dog crawled out from beneath a crawl space of her owner's home, covered in ash and soot in a wildfire evacuation zone near Middletown, Calif. On Sept. 17, 2015, Skoloff returned the dog to his owner Lawrence Ross. Officials had not let residents return since the fire erupted about 100 miles north of San Francisco, scorching thousands of acres and reducing more than 800 homes to ash. Thumper survived among homes burned to their foundations and the five days she had been alone at the house that miraculously remained unscathed.
    (AP Photo/Brian Skoloff)
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California fire officials say 250 additional homes burned in a Sierra Nevada wildfire, bringing the total to 503.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Mike Mohler says the increased count comes as firefighters make progress and damage inspection teams have access to affected areas.

The Butte fire is burning in Amador and Calaveras counties. Two deaths have been reported. Officials had reported 252 homes destroyed as of Friday night. In addition to the more than 500 homes destroyed, officials report 330 outbuildings as casualties of the fire. 

The fire is 63 percent contained. Evacuation Advisories have been lifted in the following areas effective Friday, Sept. 18, 2015 at 6:00 pm: All areas and roads south of Dogtown, San Domingo, Fullen and along the Highway 4 corridor, from Angels Camp through Camp Connell. 

A separate blaze in Lake County, about 170 miles northwest, has killed three people, destroyed nearly 600 homes and burned hundreds of other structures.

Heat was descending again on the two deadly and destructive Northern California wildfires after a few days of fair and favorable conditions, and it brought with it fears the blazes could come back to life and major gains could be undone.

"We're looking at predicted weather of 100 degrees for the next couple of days, and at least mid-90s throughout the weekend," Scott Mclean, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said Friday.

That makes it essential that the smoldering remains of the two giant blazes be dealt with as quickly and thoroughly as possible, Mclean said.

"You've got some high temps, high winds that could stir up those ash piles and those ember piles," he said. "We have to do that mop-up to be sure this fire goes to bed."

By Saturday morning the blaze in Lake County had charred 116 square miles and was 48 percent contained.

The two killed by the Amador and Calaveras county fire — 66-year-old Mark McCloud and 82-year-old Owen Goldsmith — died after rejecting orders from authorities to evacuate, Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynnette Round said.

It wasn't clear if the three dead in Lake County had received evacuation notices, but two of them declined requests by friends and family to leave.

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 on the afternoon of Sept. 12, 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.

Elsewhere in Anderson Springs, 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 Joslyn 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 grounds of his brother's recycling business, where Burns also lived. It's unknown why he stayed.

A number of survivors of the fire said they never got an official evacuation notice when the danger was at its peak a week ago.

High school math teacher Bill Davis watched from his home as smoke mounted. From a previous fire in late July, he knew to expect a recorded call 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 in Lake County burned after he finally rounded up his cats and left.

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.

"You may get that notice, or you may not, depending on how fast that fire is moving," Round said. If you can see the fire, you need to be going."

Meanwhile in Middletown, Calif, Lawrence Ross looked beat, his head hanging and his eyes bloodshot five days after fleeing his home in the path of a wall of flames.

Ross showed up at a high school in the small Northern California town of Lower Lake, where authorities were escorting residents briefly into the evacuation zone to inspect their homes and check on pets and livestock. They had not let residents return since the fire erupted this past Saturday about 100 miles north of San Francisco, scorching thousands of acres and reducing more than 800 homes to ash.

When told officials were no longer letting residents in at all, not even with escorts, Ross sighed heavily, shook his head and fought back tears. "I think my house is OK, but I don't know, and my dog is there, and my goats and horses and alpacas," he told me. "My dog, my dog."

I had been covering the fire for much of the week and was planning to head back out to scout for more stories. So I grabbed my map and said, "Show me where your house is. I'll swing by while I'm out there."

Ross, 76, circled a spot off Big Canyon Road and tapped it twice with the pen.

After about 10 miles of navigating twisting roads and dodging downed power lines, I came to his dirt driveway. It was another quarter-mile to his house. I didn't have a good feeling, thinking of all the homes burned to their foundations and the five days his animals had been alone.

Unbelievably, his home was unscathed, the earth charred all around it where firefighters had beat back the flames.

Two horses grazed on hay in the yard. The alpacas stared at me from their pen. Goats scurried about like nothing had happened.

But there was no sign of Thumper, Ross' elderly 70-pound Labrador.

I walked around clapping and whistling and calling out, "Thumper!? Come on, girl!"

Nothing. I feared the worst as I walked the property for another hour, eventually crouching down and putting some crackers in my hand, whistling and calling out Thumper's name.

Thumper emerged from a crawlspace, covered in ash and soot, darting toward me — her tail wagging, her tongue flopping. She leaped into my lap, licked my face, then rolled over on her back as I rubbed her belly and I cried.

"Good girl, Thumper!" I kept telling her. "You made it!"

I immediately called Ross.

"Your house is OK. Your animals are fine, and I've got Thumper!" I shouted.

There was momentary silence on the line, and then Ross began repeating: "I can't believe it. I can't believe it."

"I'm bringing her to you right now," I said. I hoisted her into the back seat of my rental car and sped toward town while she panted heavily and looked confused.

As I pulled into a gas station parking lot, Ross sat on a curb smoking a cigarette. I yelled out the window, "We're here!"

He looked up in a daze. I barely had the back door open when Thumper pushed her way out and ran toward him, her entire body wagging now.

It was a moment of pure joy.

"I dreamed last night the house was burning down, and I could hear her screaming as she burned," he told me after giving me a big hug.

"I can't believe it," Ross repeated, rubbing Thumper's belly. He looked at me, grateful tears in his eyes.

For now, he remains a man without a home, living out of his car, but at least he has some peace of mind knowing his house is still standing and Thumper is by his side.

Associated Press Writers Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles and Olga Rodriquez in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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