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Husband appeared to be shielding his wife as wildfire reached their home. Both died

Husband appeared to be shielding his wife as wildfire reached their home. Both died
Burned rubble is all that remains of the Kern County home where Byron McKaig, 81, and his wife, Gladys, 90, died trying to escape the Erskine fire. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Bill Johnson always knew he was getting close to home when he saw the distinctive red barn-style house from across Lake Isabella.

The two-story home belonged to Byron McKaig, 81, an Anglican priest, and his 90-year-old wife, Gladys.

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On Friday morning, after the Erskine fire tore through the area, Johnson ventured into a neighbor's yard, and from there, spotted the couple's two cars next to the burning stubs of their home.

"They didn't get out," Johnson thought. Then he spotted the McKaigs lying against a corner of their fence, a tree near their bodies smoldering like their house.

Their clothes did not appear to have been touched by flames. Johnson said Byron looked like he 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," Johnson said. "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 was where they ended. I thought it was terrible for those people to go like that. Just horrible. They didn't deserve it."

The McKaigs are the two confirmed casualties of the worst wildfire so far this year in California. The blaze has burned more than 46,000 acres and destroyed more than 200 structures. Many residents ran for their lives as the fire raced toward them, but the McKaigs could not escape.

The fire all but wiped out the community of South Lake, where the majority of residents are retirees living on fixed incomes. Many lived alone.

Officials have long said this population was especially vulnerable when fast-moving fires move in.

Last September, a monster fire in Lake County killed four people, at least three of whom were elderly people who could not escape. Others who did survive arrived at shelters in wheelchairs and using oxygen tanks.

Around Lake Isabella, many wondered whether the elderly victims there could rebuild their lives.

Louis Reyes, 59, moved to South Lake to care for his 95-year-old mother. To him, South Lake always felt more like a retirement community. After the fire broke out, Reyes' brother helped evacuate neighbors who didn't have cars — driving up and down Goat Ranch Road several times until the flames and smoke became too much to bear.

The home Reyes shared with his mother and wife burned down. He said he would like to buy the land from the owner.

"It was a beautiful mobile home with a built-in porch and big yard," he said. "We'll have to rebuild it ourselves. We're not going anywhere."

On Tuesday, an acrid, burning smell hung in the air outside the foundation of the McKaig's home. Ash littered the ground, and the trees on the property were blackened like used-up matches.

In the ruins Johnson could make out a desk, a freezer and a washing machine. Other items were so twisted and warped by the fire that they were difficult to identify.

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Johnson said he remembered how Gladys used to drive around in an old pickup, her red hair tucked under a bonnet.

"She was just a sophisticated lady," he said. "She was like a tough country woman."

He recalled that when singer John Denver died in 1997, Byron McKaig played his music loudly and belted out songs like "Take Me Home, Country Roads."

"Gladys' house — I don't know if her daughter will want to rebuild," he said. "It'll probably be an empty lot now, so it'll be a big hole in our community. … You always expect to see Gladys' home sticking out. You'd always see it."

Geralin Montgomery lived across from the McKaigs for nine years. She didn't know them well, though she said "they were very, very, very religious."

Montgomery said Gladys would pass out religious pamphlets and used to often play the organ.

"The whole neighborhood could hear," Montgomery said.

Ray Conner lives along McCray Road, where the McKaigs also lived.

"They never went anywhere without each other," Conner said. "And that's the best way I'm going to describe them. They were just together all the time. Through it all, they were together."

On Friday morning, Conner and his wife had taken a drive to check on a friend's home, when his wife wondered aloud if the couple had made it out.

When news came out about bodies being found, they were sure it was the McKaigs.

South Lake resident Lisa Blair searches through the rubble with her boyfriend Joshua Wood after it was burned down in the Erskine Fire. (Dillon Deaton / Los Angeles Times)

"We knew right away who it was because we knew the location of the house," Conner said.

Though  he lamented their deaths, he said he was relieved there wasn't a greater loss, considering how quickly the fire moved.

"It's a miracle more people didn't lose their lives," he said.

"Knowing that a lot of my friends have lost their homes and lost everything, you don't know where to begin," he said. "The one thing I can say about the Kern River Valley is that we came together as a community to help everybody we possibly could."

The couple would visit Nelda's Diner in Lake Isabella a couple of times a week, choosing a booth on the right side near the windows facing out on Lake Isabella Boulevard.

They would stay for a couple of hours, enjoying cups of coffee and conversation.

"They were really nice people," said waitress Suz Humphers. "Been coming here for years."

Humphers said the McKaig's got around slowly. When Gladys would get her food, and it was arranged to her taste she would exclaim: "Oh this is just lovely," Humphers recalled with a smile.

Frank Brassell, who co-owns the diner with his wife, called Byron a "sharp guy" and said Gladys was very proud that Byron had studied at a seminary and was an ordained minister.

"He was devoted to her," Brassell said. He said he wouldn't have been surprised if Byron had tried to protect Gladys from the fire.

"He would have stayed past the last minute in order to save her," Brassell said. "I know he would have."

Mejia reported from Lake Isabella and Fernandez from Los Angeles.

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UPDATES:

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5:10 p.m.: This post was updated with details about last year's Lake fire.

3:11 p.m.: This post was updated with comments from a fire official.

2:07 p.m.: This post was updated with comments from the co-owner and waitress of a diner.

1:40 p.m.: This post was updated with comments from neighbors.

This story was originally posted at 1:01 p.m.

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