Barbara McWilliams told her caretaker she didn't want to leave her home near Middletown, Calif., despite a nearby wildfire. The world traveler and sharp-minded woman with advanced multiple sclerosis said she would be fine. The decision ended up costing the 72-year-old her life. Her body was found late Sunday in her burned-out home after flames kept Lake County sheriff's officials from reaching her. The fire that sped through Middletown and other parts of rural Lake County, less than 100 miles north of San Francisco, has been burning nearly unchecked, despite a massive firefighting effort, since Saturday. Caregiver Jennifer Hittson tells the Press Democrat she left McWilliams' home around 3pm that day, unaware of the fire's seriousness, even though officers were at that point turning drivers away from Highway 175, which leads to the area where McWilliams lived.
She says she called the sheriff's office twice Saturday and CalFire on Sunday, only to be told by dispatchers, "we will get out there when we can." Hittson says McWilliams could walk slowly and that her hands were weak; the Los Angeles Times reports she was unable to drive. "That I left her there, it haunts me," Hittson adds. A police rep says the sheriff's office received a call about an elderly disabled female at 7:12pm Saturday and they responded 22 minutes later, but found the subdivision "engulfed by flames." Hittson shares with the Times some of the last words McWilliams said to her, as Hittson was leaving Saturday: "I just want to tell you how much I enjoy you, how much I appreciate you." (Read more California wildfires stories.)