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Kern County officials investigating possible third fatality in massive wildfire

As a massive wildfire in Kern County continued to burn out of control Saturday, sheriff's officials said they may have found the remains of a third person killed in the fire.

"We've located what we believe are human remains," said sheriff's spokesman Ray Pruitt. "We are treating it like a crime scene. … It appears to be one set of human remains, pretty badly burned."

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Arson detectives and homicide investigators were at the victim's mobile home in the 4100 block of Fiddleneck Street in South Lake late Saturday afternoon. A corner was en route, Pruitt said.

"The fire came through here late Thursday night," he said. "Sheriff's deputies were going door to door, urging people to leave. But at one point, our deputies had to fall back because the fire was moving so quickly. It is not clear if this was one of the areas that we could not alert door to door."

Pruitt said the county battalion chief was in the neighborhood Thursday night after the fire broke out.

"He knew this particular property burned very quickly," Pruitt said. "So he came back here today to investigate. We don't know at this point how this fire started. But if it turns out the fire was intentionally set, then we have to investigate it as a homicide."

Firefighters confronted hot, dry weather and steep, rugged terrain Saturday as they continued to battle the Erskine Fire, which has grown to more than 46 square miles and destroyed 150 homes and other structures. At least two people are confirmed dead.

High temperatures, dry grass and winds of up to 40 mph aided in the fast-moving blaze, which at one point swept across 11 miles in 13 hours. The National Weather Service in Central California predicts above-normal temperatures and dry conditions will continue this weekend, topping 90 degrees Saturday and reaching 95 degrees Sunday.

On Saturday morning in the shade of a singed sycamore tree, Joe Palme leaned back in a battered lawn chair, the only possession that survived the fire that engulfed the home just south of Lake Isabella that he had shared with his wife for 33 years.

"We didn't have time to save a single thing," Palme, 76, said, gazing at a heap of smoldering ash and twisted metal that was his 3,000-square-foot two-story home. "Fifty-five years of things collected over the course of our marriage, all gone."

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

His shorts singed, the hair on his arms and legs burned off, Palme was trying to make sense of the devastation and the elements that seemed to conspire against him: wind-driven flames, almost no water pressure in local hydrants and a dearth of firefighters in the area known locally as Squirrel Valley.

No sooner had his house caught fire at about 4:15 p.m. Thursday than Palme decided to make a stand.

He grabbed a garden hose, only to find "there was so little pressure that all I had to fight the flames with was a 3-foot long dribble of water."

Palme said the first emergency response vehicle arrived an hour after the fire marched into his neighborhood.

"The fellow in that U.S. Forest Service truck rolled down his window and asked me, 'Hey, buddy, where's the fire?' "

Pointing over his shoulder in exasperation, Palme responded tersely: "You can't see it?"

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I just want to go home.


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He returned to work trying to save his property, this time by entering his garage to dampen the wood frames with the water from his garden hose.

Within seconds, however, the garage was filled with smoke so dense, he said, "I had to belly crawl out of there to avoid suffocation."

He said firefighters were in the area but said they had no water.

The structure was destroyed within 30 minutes.

On Friday, while staying with relatives, Palme said his wife, Michele, blurted out, "I just want to go home."

"I said, 'We have no home to go to.' "

The scramble to contain the wildfire drew more than 1,100 firefighters from across California, with hundreds more on the way.

More bad news arrived Saturday morning when Palme learned that an elderly couple who lived in a tidy stucco house 100 yards away apparently died of smoke inhalation as the fire raged through the neighborhood the day before.

Officials said they would continue an aggressive damage assessment of the fire zone to let evacuated residents know as quickly as possible whether their property was damaged or destroyed.

At a community meeting Saturday morning, some frustrated residents said they didn't know if their homes were still standing. They asked whether they could return to their neighborhoods, but fire officials said it was unsafe to do so.

The frantic effort to control the more than 30,000-acre Erskine fire in the southern Sierra Nevada has drawn more than 800 firefighters from emergency crews across the state to the rural towns along the southern part of Lake Isabella, and hundreds more are on the way.

The blaze's path has been marked by ruin: charred fields, burned-out cars, exploded propane tanks. The flames leveled homes — save for their brick chimneys — and at least three firefighters have been injured. Gov. Jerry Brown issued a state of emergency for Kern County.

Late Friday, as officials announced that the fire was only 5% contained, firefighters were focused on defending the rural Kelso Valley and the remaining cluster of towns near Lake Isabella, trying to stop the blaze from its eastward march despite the challenges posed by summer weather.

On Saturday, fire officials said the number of destroyed homes in the Erskine fire had risen to 150, according to the Associated Press.

"It's hot. It's dry. It's windy," Kern County Fire Capt. Tyler Townsend said, calling it a trifecta of forces that have made the area ripe for a wildfire. "If you haven't evacuated yet, be ready to go at a moment's notice."

The fire began at the junction of Erskine Creek Road and Apollo Way in Lake Isabella shortly before 4 p.m. Thursday and moved quickly, aided by dead trees, high winds and low moisture, said Kern County Fire Department Capt. Mike Nicholas.

From there, wind pushed the blaze up steep, rugged terrain and over a ridge, down toward Squirrel Mountain Valley and its neighboring town, Mountain Mesa, located along State Route 178. The highway runs near the southern rim of the lake and is the recommended evacuation route.

"It was insane," said Linda Good, who lives near the spot where the fire began and watched the flames race over the mountain ridge. "It just shot up."

At Kern Valley Hospital in Mountain Mesa, on the other side of the ridge, the plumes of smoke came first. Then, within minutes, 10-foot flames were at the hospital's doorstep, according to Bob Easterday, facilities director for the hospital.

The wildfire still rages in the mountains after flames raced through a South Lake neighborhood.
The wildfire still rages in the mountains after flames raced through a South Lake neighborhood. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

"My maintenance guys were fighting the fire with hoses," he said, because firefighters just couldn't keep up as the fire leapfrogged terrain.

The fire was burning so fast, "it literally blew right past the hospital," hospital CEO Timothy McGlew said. "The only thing I can call it is a miracle" that no hospital structures were damaged.

Brian Marshall, the county fire chief, said the firefight was overwhelming: "There's not enough firetrucks and firefighters to put in front of every structure."

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In the hours since the Erskine fire took off, aerial teams have dropped retardant on ridgelines, and more than 800 firefighters have arrived, clocking long hours. Additional resources were expected late Friday from out of state.

If we allow people to go back into their homes, we can’t make them leave. If that fire shifts, we’re going to have more casualties.


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"There are some who have been working on this fire for two days with minimal breaks," said Townsend, adding that firefighters would soon move to rotating 12-hour shifts.

The cause of the fire is under a criminal investigation.

Residents who live close to where the fire originated said they saw one or two men around where the flames ignited. Barbara Harper, 71, said she spotted the flames near her yard, called 911 and waited 10 minutes for firefighters to show up.

"By then the fire was out of control," she said. "It was a fast fire."

But Harper said she saw two young men running away from the flames and into a nearby gully. She alerted the Sheriff's Department, and deputies said they would contact her in two days.

Alex Thurman, 20, wanders along South Kelso Valley Road, checking on neighbors' homes as they burn.
Alex Thurman, 20, wanders along South Kelso Valley Road, checking on neighbors' homes as they burn. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said he was unaware if anyone had been detained or arrested at the site. Arson investigators were surveying the area where the blaze began, near the Kern River Archers field, where a burn area was enclosed by yellow police tape.

The two people confirmed to have died in the blaze have not been publicly identified. Authorities said the two were found together and succumbed to smoke inhalation.

Sheriff's deputies planned to use cadaver dogs to search for any additional victims amid the rubble.

Several hundred people have been evacuated from the affected communities, with up to 40 deputies swarming neighborhoods and moving door to door to ask residents to leave.

The fickle winds governing the fire's path left authorities hesitant to allow any residents to return home.

The fire tore through homes and charred cars in Lake Isabella.
The fire tore through homes and charred cars in Lake Isabella. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

"The problem is, this fire keeps shifting," Youngblood said. "If we allow people to go back into their homes, we can't make them leave. If that fire shifts, we're going to have more casualties."

Residents worried about the fate of their houses and keepsakes, left behind as they hastily fled. The rumor of bandits looting the swaths of abandoned homes sent fear through Diane Cathcart.

"Where are the police? Who's up there making sure our things aren't being robbed?" she wondered late Friday. "Anyone could be walking into our homes."

Others, such as Leslie Wilson, fretted over routine medical needs that were thwarted by the evacuation.

"My husband needs medication for his heart," said Wilson, who lives in Squirrel Valley. "I don't know where to go."

On Saturday, officials said three firefighters injured earlier this week were released from the hospital.

Sahagun, Fernandez and Vives reported from Lake Isabella. Times staff writers Matt Hamilton, Nina Agrawal, Joseph Serna, Brittny Mejia and Frank Shyong contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

4:31 p.m.: This article was updated with the condition of firefighters hurt in blaze.

2:07 p.m.: This article was adjusted with new wording, details.

12:07 p.m.: This article was updated with a damage assessment of 150 homes destroyed.

11:55 a.m.: This article has been updated with new information about residents who lost their homes.

10:32 a.m.: The article was updated with information about damage assessment.

7:24 a.m.: This article was updated with a weather forecast for the weekend.

This article was originally published at 11:06 p.m. June 24.

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