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Weary Kern County evacuees are eager to know if their homes have survived massive wildfire

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Tyra Fuller, resident of South Lake, whose home is destroyed. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Tensions were running high Sunday at Kernville Elementary School, where dozens of evacuees camped out over the weekend as a massive wildfire continued to burn out of control in Kern County.

Robert Larsen sat by himself outside the school, drinking coffee.

“I want to go home,” said the 34-year-old Mountain Mesa resident, whose community around Lake Isabella was among those hardest hit by the Erskine fire, which has grown to more than 36,000 acres. “I just need to know what direction to go. “

Larsen was among dozens of people at the shelter who were losing patience with conflicting messages from law enforcement authorities about when evacuation orders would be lifted. They were eager to know if their homes and personal belongings had survived the devastation.

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“That’s all we need – more information,” Larsen said. “Is my home there?”

Many of the evacuees at the shelter had not bathed in days and were still wearing the same grimy, smoky clothes they had arrived in after the fire broke out Thursday. So their hearts sank when Kern County fire officials announced Sunday afternoon that evacuation orders would remain in place indefinitely.

“No one is going back into these areas until it safe to do so,” said Anthony Romero, a spokesman for Kern County. That message, he conceded, “is as frustrating to deliver as it must be frustrating to hear for all these people.”

The fire, which has destroyed more than 200 structures and continues to threaten thousands more, is only 10% contained, he said. Temperatures in the area are also forecast to remain above normal, with highs around 100 degrees into Tuesday.

“The trouble is, many of these properties lack water and power, and they are covered with hazardous substances, including asbestos,” Romero said. “When you’re without water and power, you’re in an inhospitable home.”

But not everyone was willing to wait.

Ken and Judy Brown worried that thieves would use back roads to circumvent police barricades, make their way to the fire-ravaged South Lake community and loot the remains of their mobile home.

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Of particular concern was a buried safe that guarded his wife’s jewelry, and 100 Susan B. Anthony silver dollars.

On Sunday, Ken Brown, 76, told his wife he had something important to do and would be back soon.

An hour later, he was in his pickup truck, roaring along the back roads on the south side of the lake, without a law enforcement officer in sight.

“Our mobile home was burned to the ground,” he said. “I went to the area where the safe should be, fell to my knees and started digging through the ashes with my hands.”

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“I felt the top of the safe, and the lid was open,” he said. “I reached down a little further and grabbed hold of some silver dollars and bracelets.”

“Then I thought, ‘Oh man, is Judy going to love this,” he recalled with a smile.

Within a few minutes, he filled a large plastic bag with some of his wife’s most cherished jewelry pieces, many of them misshapen, fused and melted by intense heat.

Smudged with ash and dirt, he presented the recovered valuables to his wife, who had been waiting patiently at the Red Cross shelter in Kernville.

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Fighting back tears and clutching the bag to her chest, his wife could only say, “Look at what my husband got for me. Can you believe it?”

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Firefighters continue to battle the deadly Erskine fire, which has burned in a random pattern, razing some neighborhoods and leaving others nearby untouched.

Tyra Fuller, 50, also managed to return to her South Lake neighborhood Sunday. Standing near the blackened rubble that was once her home, Fuller picked up a ceramic unicorn on the ground that wasn’t charred by the fire.

“It’s amazing the things that survive,” she said.

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Fuller said she had lived in her home for 16 years. As a child, Fuller said she would spend summer vacations with her mom and grandmother’s cousin in Lake Isabella. The house was later passed down to her uncle until 2000 when she inherited it.

Among the items she recovered from the ruins were her mother’s cast iron teapot and her ceramic unicorns. Lost were her baby book, vintage camera and film.

“My life,” she said.