(Editorial Note: This is an evolving story likely to have updates.)
(update 6/27 5:38 p.m.)
Fire crews are making progress today on what is being called the most destructive wildfire in Kern County history, and some residents are beginning to return home.
The Erskine Fire has burned more than 45,000 acres and has destroyed 200 homes near Lake Isabella. It also killed two people.
Evacuation orders are still in place for residents in Squirrel Valley and South Lake, but some residents in communities like Yankee Canyon, Mountain Mesa and Weldon are being allowed to return. The fire is now 40 percent contained.
Fire Information Officer Margaret Hangan says the fire burned hot and fast in the beginning.
“It was absolutely wind driven,” Hangan says.” We’re very hot, we’re very dry and then you add fire and then you add wind to that and that will drive a fire very, very quickly.”
Hangan says that’s why she suspects the blaze consumed so many homes. Currently hotshot crews are fighting the fire along ridge peaks to keep it from spreading.
“They’re carrying everything on their backs working the edges of that fire trying to put a fire perimeter on it. Where they stop that is where they’ll camp and then they’ll get up in the morning and they will do it again.”
While some areas are being reopened, for those 200 or so families who lost their homes it’ll be at least a day or two before they can sift through the rubble.
Kern County Fire Chief Brian Marshall says fire crews are working to make burned out areas safe for the public.
“It’s just very dangerous. We want to make sure that when our citizens come home that they are safe. Downed electrical power lines, hot ash, burning trees that could fall, all of these things have to be mitigated by our firefighters.”
Virginia Tucker is one of those residents. She escaped unscathed by the Erskine Fire because she wasn’t at home when it hit. But her dog was still at her house in the hills near Lake Isabella in Kern County. Since the main road to her place was blocked by fire crews she returned via a back road and saved the dog.
TUCKER: “I went back the next day to see how bad my house was burnt and my chickens were still alive.”
ROMERO: “Is the house totally gone?”
TUCKER: “Everything! My whole neighborhood gone, wiped out.”
Tucker is waiting with about 100 others at a Red Cross evacuation center in the tiny mountain community of Kernville. Many of them don’t know if their homes are still standing. At the elementary school they have cots to sleep on, water, food and resources like a Verizon mobile unit for charging phones. Jessica Piffero, with the Red Cross, says this fire is the most destructive she’s witnessed in her tenure.
“Kern County we’ve had some smaller fires, we’ve had some damage, but nothing on this scale. It’s really unprecedented for this region,” says Piffero.
And because the fire is still active, many families at the center will have to wait before they can see firsthand if their homes are intact.
The cause of the fire is still undetermined.
(update 6/24 1:44)
The Erskine wildfire near Bakersfield has now burned more than 40,000 acres and, at last update, was 40% contained.
The fire has already consumed about 200 structures and could threaten another 1,500 structures. It has also killed an elderly couple.
Fueled by drought-parched vegetation and pushed by high winds, the fire near Lake Isabella northeast of Bakersfield grew quickly overnight.
The fire is burning in a populated area putting many homes and other structures at risk.
Because of the rapid speed of the growth of the fire, social media sites are filled with people friends and family members who live in the area.
Extra fire crews are in route to try and contain the fire before it can grow anymore. As many 800 firefighters will be working the blaze today.
But the rough terrain and the expectation of continued high winds could make controlling the fire very difficult.
(update 6/24 1:44)
Fire officials confirm that two people have been killed by the fire.
(Update 6/24 2:15)
In a matter of hours, the Erskine Fire exploded from a few hundred acres to several thousand quickly overwhelming the fire crews at the scene.
Timothy Groover lives a near the blaze and says the fire moved so fast that one of his friends barely escaped.
“She had less than ten minutes to get her and her boys out and the fire crept up on her within a matter of seconds and singed her hair as she was running to her car. She lost everything,” Groover says.
Evacuation orders are in place around the fire and the Red Cross has established a shelter.
Nancy Cameron, who also lives near the fire, says the timing is terrible as it comes just when locals expected tourists to return to enjoy the lake…
“(it’s) Going to hit our valley hard. We just got the lake back this year. The rafting is just kicking in. It has been a rough couple of years. A lot of businesses have gone out because of the lake being so low and not having any water,” Cameron says.
Other residents in the area are offering their help, such as taking car of large animals, for free.