Man, woman who died in California fires were ready to flee but stayed because of 'erroneous information'

Fires ravaging California, Oregon and Washington have killed at least 34 people, destroyed thousands of homes and other structures and charred an area about the size of New Jersey.

A 68-year-old man and a 77-year-old woman who were found dead near their home in fire-ravaged Northern California had been packed to evacuate but decided to stay based on "erroneous information" about the blaze, authorities said.

A volunteer firefighter in Oregon who used a bullhorn to alert neighbors to approaching flames later found his own home destroyed.

And in some areas of Oregon, California and Washington, residents and officials are getting a truer sense of the vast destruction caused by wildfires that have scorched an area about the size of New Jersey.

A firefighter works at the scene of the Bobcat Fire burning on hillsides near Monrovia Canyon Park in Monrovia, Calif., on Tuesday.Ringo Chiu / AFP - Getty Images

In Oregon, 1 million acres have burned and 1,145 homes and 579 other structures have been destroyed, according to the Oregon Office of Emergency Management. Eight people have died.

Blazes in Washington have charred more than 800,000 acres and destroyed 418 structures, including 195 homes. One person was confirmed dead, a number that is "not expected to change," said Thomas Kyle-Milward, a spokesperson for the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

In California, authorities have confirmed the deaths of least 25 people from fires that have scorched over 3.3 million acres and destroyed over 4,200 structures.

More than 17,000 firefighters were battling 25 major wildfires or clusters of fires called complexes, as well as two "extended attack wildfires," the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, said Wednesday.

In Butte County, north of Sacramento, Philip Rubel, 68, and Millicent Catarancuic, 77, were ready to flee their home but changed their minds, county Sheriff Kory Honea said at a news conference Tuesday.

"They had packed their belongings in preparation to evacuate but later decided not to evacuate based on erroneous information that the fire was 51 percent contained," Honea said.

They were later found dead.

The pair may have gotten the 51 percent containment figure from an update that came before the blaze intensified, The Sacramento Bee reported.

Another female relative who lived at the property, Susan Zurz, 76, was missing, Zygy Roe-Zurz, her son, told the Los Angeles Times.

Rubel and Catarancuic were his uncle and aunt, Roe-Zurz said. "I guess they felt that if there was a change in circumstances they would be able to get out, and that proved to be a fatal error," he said.

The identification of Catarancuic and Rubel's remains was announced Tuesday.

Honea did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the status of the search for Susan Zurz.

Butte County includes Paradise, a town that was destroyed in the 2018 Camp Fire, one of the deadliest fires on record in the state, which killed 85 people.

Firefighters in Southern California said they have successfully defended Mount Wilson Observatory — a famous astronomical complex perched on a mile-high ridge in the San Gabriel Mountains — according to tweets posted by Angeles National Forest.

"Assisted by the outstanding defensible space of Mt. Wilson Observatory, firefighters installed hand and dozer line - strategically fired, and dropped water creating a strong protection point for Mt. Wilson," @Angeles_NF wrote.

Despite the progress defending the observatory, the blaze called the Bobcat Fire was only 3 percent contained after having burned over 44,000 acres, according to Angeles National Forest.

In southern Oregon, where wildfires swept the lakeside town of Detroit this week, volunteer firefighter Don Tesdal recalled using a bullhorn to alert his neighbors to the approaching flames.

"The wind was a big part of what caused those fires to do what they did," Tesdal said in an interview with NBC affiliate KGW of Portland.

The station reported Tuesday that Detroit was "largely destroyed" and showed images of smoke-yellowed skies and the skeletal remains of blackened evergreens.

Tesdal said he posted a video of himself returning to his destroyed home — which he had unsuccessfully tried to save late Monday by draping it with hoses and sprinklers before evacuating — because he wanted people to know that "if you're going back to see the beauty of Detroit, you're not going to find it in the landscape right now."

"You need to think about what it is about living in Detroit that really meant a lot to you other than that tree in your yard ... because that tree is gone," Tesdal said.

Oregon has been granted a major disaster declaration after the governor made the request to President Donald Trump, the state office of emergency management said Wednesday.

Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement that "Oregon is resilient, but to fight fires on this scale, we need all the help we can get," Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement.

Smoke has clogged the skies of Western states and is visible thousands of miles away on the East Coast, including at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday called the wildfires "an unprecedented emergency" and addressed the issue of warming temperatures, saying that since the 1980, the average temperature in the state between June and September rose from around 71 to about 74 degrees.

"While that may not seem significant, three degrees, it is profoundly impactful," Newsom said.

He said the state is working with the U.S. Forest Service to more than double the annual acreage of prescribed burns and other forest thinning practices, but that the issue of rising temperatures and climate change is a fundamental fact that cannot be denied.

"There are no Democratic thermometers and no Republican thermometers," Newsom said. "There's fact, and there's reality as well as observed evidence. It's not a belief system, it's an acknowledgment. The facts are the facts."

Phil Helsel contributed.