Fire officials confirmed two fatalities Friday in a fast-moving fire near Lake Isabella that has scorched more than 30,000 acres and destroyed 100 structures.
As of Friday evening, the blaze was 5% contained.
Gov. Jerry Brown issued a state of emergency for Kern County, a move that helps more quickly get aid to impacted communities.
“Anne and I extend our heartfelt sympathies to everyone impacted by this destructive blaze,” Brown said in a statement. “We join all Californians in expressing our gratitude to the courageous firefighters, emergency personnel and volunteers working tirelessly throughout Kern County to help residents and extinguish this fire.”
Firefighters said they were dealing with increasingly gusty winds Friday evening, bringing new worries that the fire will start spreading rapidly again,
About 2,000 people have been evacuated as firefighters try to defend some 1,500 homes. About 800 firefighters are on the scene now, and officials hope to eventually have a thousand, they said.
In a Facebook post, the Kern County Fire Department confirmed two fatalities.
Authorities said they were overwhelmed by the fire, which pushed into rural communities Thursday evening so quickly that firefighters could not keep up with the inferno. They said years of drought combined with heat and strong winds created the devastating conditions.
The fire began at the junction of Erskine Creek Road and Apollo Way shortly before 4 p.m. Thursday and moved quickly, aided by extremely dry conditions, dead trees, high winds and low fuel moisture, said Kern County Fire Department Capt. Mike Nicholas.
“All those things contributed to the rapid spread and erratic fire behavior,” Nicholas said. “We’ve had lots of big incidents. This one’s pretty bad though.”
The blaze swept across 11 miles in 13 hours while firefighters raced to try to protect rural neighborhoods.
“Firefighters from all agencies … have been engaged in a firefight of epic proportions trying to save every structure possible,” said Kern County Fire Chief Brian Marshall at a news conference Friday morning. “In a situation like this, there’s not enough fire trucks and firefighters to put in front of every structure … they’re working whole neighborhoods.”
Marshall estimated that at least 100 structures — including 80 homes — have been destroyed by the fire, but he said an accurate count wouldn’t be available until later.
The wind-pushed fire chewed through dead grass and big trees parched by years of drought. Hundreds of firefighters were flooding the area Friday morning to join in the effort, officials said.
The fire is threatening the small communities of South Fork, Weldon, Onyx, Lakeland Estates, Yankee Canyon and Mountain Mesa.
Three firefighters have suffered smoke inhalation, officials said.
Video from local TV stations showed the fire moving rapidly down a hillside and into a neighborhood of homes. Another video from the Kern County Fire Department showed some structures engulfed in flames as a large air tanker flew over the blaze.
An evacuation center had been set up at Kernville Elementary School on Thursday night. On Friday morning, evacuee Cher Buys, 63, said she had arrived there to find people “crying their guts out.”
The Weldon resident said she was at home in bed when the electricity went out around 7 p.m. the night before. She said she walked outside and into a fog of smoke: "You couldn't see the neighbor's house next door."
After grabbing a few items from her home, she jumped into her black Jeep and drove off just as firefighters were arriving to evacuate residents. She could also see tall flames being driven closer by the wind.
"It just kept climbing and climbing over the mountains," she said of the fire. "For it to move through five towns is a lot."
Buys said she had long feared that California's drought and high temperatures would lead to a wildfire in the region.
"The trees aren't getting water," she said. "They're dying."