In fire-ravaged South Lake, residents wonder if more could have been done to save their homes

The flames may have destroyed Holly Lightner’s home, but she’s grateful that she still has South Lake.

The 62-year-old former nurse has lived in the hamlet of retirees and low-income families near the southern shore of Lake Isabella since 1986. South Lake, she said, is the kind of place where the grocer lets those short on cash buy their food with an IOU, not wanting anyone to go hungry.

"You can only find that in a small town like ours, I guess," she said, chuckling. "That's us, that's South Lake."

Yet among the tight-knit community, with a few hundred residents just 45 miles northeast of Bakersfield, frustration and anger are flaring as they face the grim reality presented by the Erskine fire, which has killed at least two people.

At more than 70 square miles, the blaze is the state’s largest and it has leveled 200 structures, making it the most destructive wildfire this year. In South Lake, more than 100 trailers and houses were burned in a 1-square-mile area.

Convinced that protecting wealthier communities was the priority of first responders, angry South Lake residents pressed officials on Monday to explain at a community meeting why firefighters didn’t save more of the town.

“We don’t count because we’re poor?” Janice Ryan asked during a gathering at Kernville Elementary School, the makeshift evacuation center. “Why aren’t we as important as the next town? Why was South Lake bypassed?”

Kern County Fire Department spokesman Anthony Romero responded into a bullhorn: “When you have heavy wind going at 40 to 50 mph, there’s not any fire department anywhere in the world that would be able to catch a fire going that fast.

“No one is less important here. Everybody is important,” he said. “Unfortunately this fire was too big, too fast for us to get in front of.”

The blaze is the largest of the nine wildfires raging in the state. Fires across California have scorched more than 70,000 acres and drawn more than 5,000 firefighters. Of those, more than 2,000 firefighters have been assigned to the Erskine fire, named for the street near where the blaze broke out Thursday. 

Officials said late Monday that the fire was 45% contained, and although it did not grow Monday, there is concern that flames may head west toward rugged mountains just below its initial path.

The two people killed in the blaze have been identified as Byron and Gladys McKaig. Byron McKaig was an Anglican priest in a Kernville congregation, ​​​​​​according to Bishop Eric Menees of the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin, who issued a statement confirming their deaths.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Evacuations were lifted for the communities of Mountain Mesa, Weldon, Larson Tract, Navajo, Hillview Acres and Bella Vista, but not South Lake.

After learning that he could return to his mobile home in Mountain Mesa, Don Jones, 69, got into his car, got some extra water and sped off, eager to get home to his cat.

He grew more frustrated as he got caught in traffic, waiting as workers repaired an electric pole. He pulled into his neighborhood, but before he even came to a stop, he began shouting his cat's name.

"Stormy, Stormy!" he yelled over and over, putting his hands on his knees and looking wherever he could for the black-and-white cat. He checked his neighbors’ shady porch, where he knew his cat sometimes hides. He wasn't there.

Jones hadn’t planned on leaving his home. He had gone to get a drink with a neighbor, and when he tried to return, he was told the road was closed.

He tried different ways to get back in but couldn't. At the evacuation center, he thought constantly about Stormy, his companion whom he had gotten as a kitten 10 years ago.

"He's all I've got," Jones said, his voice shaking.

Neighbors checked in on him, trying to make conversation. One asked if he was OK.

"Not yet,” he said. “Not until I find that cat.”

His neighbor across the street, Lori Snooks, was having a tough time of her own. Without electricity, she stored her remaining scraps of food -- including some tortillas and eggs -- on her porch, tucked in a cooler with ice.

ruben.vives@latimes.com

brittny.mejia@latimes.com

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

Vives and Mejia reported from Lake Isabella, Hamilton from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Joseph Serna and Alexia Fernandez contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

4 a.m. June 28: This article has been updated throughout with additional details and editing, including the containment of the fire and its projected path.

6:04 p.m.: This post was updated with the names of the two people killed in the fire.

1:50 p.m.: This post was updated with scenes from the Mountain Mesa neighborhood.

1:08 p.m.: This post was updated with the names of communities that had evacuations lifted.

12:05 p.m.: This post was updated with details from meeting at Kernville Elementary School evacuation center.

This story was originally published at 7:14 a.m.

A headline on an earlier version of this article stated that the Erskine fire was 70% contained. It was 40% contained as of Monday morning.

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