Death toll rises to four in California wildfires as bodies found in rural area

A series of deadly brush fires that hit Southern California this month claimed two more victims, as authorities Wednesday confirmed the discovery of two bodies in a rural area scorched by the Border fire in San Diego County. 

That brings the number to four people killed by the fires, which together burned more than 60,000 acres and destroyed more than 100 homes, the vast majority in communities near Lake Isabella in Kern County.

As of Wednesday, 4,000 firefighters are battling 12 large wildfires throughout California, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant.

It marks a destructive start to what officials have warned could be a grim fire season as California enters a fifth year of drought and some forests are filled with dead or dying trees stricken by the bark beetle. 

Residents near the U.S.-Mexico border said Wednesday that they had found two bodies believed to be those of a couple who had been missing since the 7,609-acre Border fire erupted near Potrero last week. 

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department confirmed the discovery later that afternoon, saying the remains of what appeared to be two bodies were found behind a large boulder in a ravine. The medical examiner removed the bodies and will make the final identification on the cause and manner of death, said Jan Caldwell, a sheriff’s spokeswoman.

Deputies had searched the area Monday and Tuesday but had found nothing. 

“We searched the property, which is rather large and difficult terrain,” Caldwell said. “We did not have success … it’s a very difficult property to search.”

Although authorities have yet to identify the remains, Potrero resident Iris Gardner said that searchers believe they are those of Jim Keefe, known locally as “Barefoot Jim,” and his girlfriend, Kyrie. Gardner said she did not know the girlfriend’s last name. The pair had been missing for roughly a week.

The Border fire, which is now 95% contained, is just one of many large fires crews have been battling in extremely hot, dry conditions.

On Tuesday, authorities in Kern County announced the lifting of evacuation orders in the deadly Erskine fire — the worst wildfire to erupt in California so far this year.  The blaze has raced across 46,000 acres and killed Byron McKaig, 81, and his 90-year-old wife, Gladys.

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A neighbor who found the bodies of the couple outside the ruins of their Squirrel Mountain Valley home on Friday said it appeared that Byron had died trying to protect his wife. 

“He was like on top of her, and they were together, like he was blocking her from the fire,” Bill Johnson said Tuesday. “It made me sick because immediately I saw and knew exactly what had happened – that they were alive and ran out of this burning inferno and got stuck, and that’s where they ended. I thought it was terrible for those people to go like that. Just horrible. They didn’t deserve it.” 

Officials say the fire is now 60% contained and evacuees can return to South Lake,  although there was no power or water. Evacuation orders in other areas were lifted earlier in the week. 

Other large Southern California fires, including the Sherpa fire and San Gabriel Complex fire, are mostly contained. 

The Sherpa fire burned 7,474 acres, and the San Gabriel Complex fire — which is actually two separate fires, the Reservoir fire and the Fish fire — burned 5,399 acres. 

In Northern California, fire crews are working to contain the Trailhead fire, which has forced mandatory evacuations for parts of Placer and El Dorado counties. 

The fire, which is 5% contained, has burned 650 acres since it began Tuesday afternoon and is threatening 2,444 structures, according to Cal Fire. 

Mejia reported from Los Angeles, Repard from San Diego.

Follow me @brittny_mejia

Repard writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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