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Kern County fire evacuees struggle with another trauma — uncertainty

Tensions were running high Sunday morning 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 more than 36,000-acre Erskine fire. “I just need to know what direction to go.”

Larsen was among many at the evacuation center who were anxiously awaiting word from fire officials about when they will be allowed to return to the burned areas. They want to know if their homes and personal belongings survived the devastation. 

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

Larsen said he was home Thursday afternoon when the fire broke out. He said he heard banging on his door and a neighbor telling him to get out.

“I opened the door and I saw nothing but smoke,” he said. “I’m unemployed, I don’t have a truck, where am I going to go? I have to fight it.” He grabbed his hose and started watering his single-wide trailer. Other neighbors did the same.  

But the fire was raging and a sheriff’s deputy told Lar”sen to evacuate. Larsen told the officer he had no vehicle. So the deputy drove him and his two beagles -- Bobby Joe and Beauford – to the evacuation center.  

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South Lake resident Lisa Blair searches through the rubble with her boyfriend Joshua Wood after it was burned down in the Erskine Fire.  

“I don’t want to be homeless again,” Larsen said, staring at the nearby mountains. Larsen said he had been homeless for five years until he found a job and saved enough money to purchase his trailer.

“It ain’t much, but it’s mine,” he said. “It’s home.’

Anthony Romero, a spokesman for Kern County Fire Department, told the evacuees Sunday that fire officials were still trying to assess the damage and once that’s done they would be able to provide them with a map of the homes destroyed. He did not say when people would be allowed to return to the burned areas.

“We understand no one knows what’s going on but once we know we will get it out to you,” Romero said.

As of Sunday, the wild fire was only 10% contained, he said. So far, more than 200 structures have burned and hundreds more are threatened. 

Romero said crews were trying to take advantage of light winds forecast Sunday to gain more control over the fire. But the hot weather, rising temperatures and low humidity in the mountain areas continue to make things difficult for firefighters.

 Meanwhile, a handful of parishioners at St. Peter’s Anglican Church gathered for a 10 a.m. Sunday service that included a moment of silence in honor of the two oldest members of their tiny congregation, victims of the wildfire that continued to rage on the ridgelines surrounding Lake Isabella.

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Seven people showed up for the service at the church, a modest wood-framed house of worship on the outskirts of this resort community straddling the Kern River. The other half of the congregation was unable to attend because they were holdouts in nearby evacuation zones and worried that law enforcement authorities would prevent them from returning home.

The victims’ names were not mentioned in the sermon presided over by Deacon Thomas Hunter because the Kern County coroner’s office has still not formally revealed their identities.

“It’s very sad,” said Hunter, who voluntarily leads the flock that has grown too small over the years to warrant a priest. “The man who died had just gotten out of the hospital, where he had been treated for an infected toe. His wife suffered from severe Alzheimers.”

Authorities believe the couple died of smoke inhalation after waves of fire, smoke and embers invaded their neighborhood on Thursday.

As the wildfire roared down the mountainside Thursday and into his wooded neighborhood, 76-year-old Joe Palme grabbed a garden hose and raced to douse the wooden beams before the flames reached his property.

Half an hour later, his home of 33 years had been reduced to a smoldering heap of ash and twisted metal. 

“The realization is hitting me now,” Palme said Saturday, as he gazed at the damage and leaned back in a lawn chair, one of the few possessions he had saved. “I did everything I could do with what I had.”

Two days after the deadly Erskine fire erupted, residents who fled a string of small towns along the southern shore of Lake Isabella waited with anxiety and mounting frustration for news of relatives and homes as the wildfire continued to burn. 

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The blaze, fueled by erratic winds and high temperatures, has burned in a random pattern that razed some neighborhoods and left others nearby untouched.

Fire officials on Saturday also discovered what they believed to be human remains in a burned-out mobile home in South Lake. More than 100 trailers and houses were burned in a 1-square-mile area there.

The coroner was called to the scene and is still trying to confirm whether the fire has claimed a third victim.

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

As the fire roared toward South Lake on Thursday evening, sheriff’s deputies walked door to door, urging residents to evacuate. But deputies were forced to flee the fire before they reached someone in every home, Kern County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Ray Pruitt said. 

It was not clear whether the home where the remains were discovered Saturday was “one of the areas that we could not alert,” Pruitt said. 

At least 200 structures were destroyed across the region, including the Squirrel Mountain Valley residence of an elderly couple who authorities said died of of smoke inhalation Thursday. At least 75 other homes were damaged, and 2,500 structures remained threatened. 

The scramble to contain the wildfire drew more than 1,700 firefighters from across California, with hundreds more on the way. Flames swept down ravines and through dry forests, leaving behind charred pine trees and pickups. 

Frustration and anxiety mounted Saturday among residents who evacuated as they entered their third day without news of their homes or neighborhoods.

Dozens of evacuees huddled in front of a map at Kernville Elementary School, trying to trace the fire’s path and where it might be headed.

Some asked friends of friends who sneaked back in to affected areas to look for a particular address. Others scrolled through news websites, looking for blocks that looked familiar.

The Kern County Sheriff’s Department will begin assessing the damage Sunday, Pruitt said, adding, “This is going to be a long, drawn-out process.”

Mark Judd, 62, hiked more than six miles each way from Kernville to his home in South Lake, dodging fire engines and law enforcement officials in the mountains. 

His duplex, and his guitar, somehow survived the fire. But the rest of his neighborhood looked “like a Bosnian war zone,” Judd said. 

Along major streets in South Lake, every mobile home was destroyed. The only things left standing were yard ornaments of forest creatures, corrugated metal tool sheds and car frames.

“What would you do if I told you I’d hiked to my home?” Judd asked fire officials at an information meeting Saturday morning as he pressed them for updates. “Would you arrest me?”

Carl Conklin of South Lake describes how he noticed the Erskine fire while he was barbecuing and didn’t think much of it. But without warning the firestorm was upon him.

Robert Moran, 73 of South Lake learned that his home had been destroyed after a pilot friend flew over the destruction. 

Moran had always loved Lake Isabella, and saved money for years so he could spend his retirement fishing along the river. 

“Those doggone winds,” Moran said. “I knew my house was going to go up.” 

Frustration also flared with some residents who wondered whether the emergency response had been efficient enough.

Palme, whose home in Squirrel Mountain Valley burned down, said the first emergency vehicle arrived in his neighborhood an hour after the fire did.

Low water pressure left him pointing a “3-foot-long dribble of water” at his house as he raced to dampen the wooden beams. And six firefighters nearby told him that they had run out of water, he said. 

Temperatures are expected to rise in Kern County through Tuesday, and low humidity will also continue to be a problem, according to the National Weather Service.

But wind gusts of up to 40 mph will subside, giving firefighters a better chance at containing the blaze and  eliminating one of the fire’s biggest risks. 

“It’s enough of an improvement weatherwise where they’re going to be able to try to get somewhat of a handle on that fire,” meteorologist Kevin Durfee said. The wind, he said, “was their biggest threat yesterday and the day before.”

In South Lake, as the sky turned yellow, then orange, Louis Reyes hustled his 95-year-old mother to the car, while his wife grabbed medication, important documents and their Chihuahua, Cloud.

“There were no cops and no firemen,” Reyes said, and the scene in South Lake was “hectic.”

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

As ash and embers flew, some residents tried to flee on foot. Reyes’ brother drove back to the neighborhood three times, helping people evacuate in his truck until the smoke and flames grew too thick.

Reyes’ mobile home, with a built-in porch and a big yard, was destroyed. 

“God replaces things you lose in life,” Reyes said, tearing up. 

In Squirrel Mountain Valley, a pocket of homes just south of the lake, strong winds scattered belongings from a charred home on McCray Drive, where the elderly couple was found dead.

The possessions included thousands of burned pages of religious texts describing showdowns between Jesus Christ, astral spirits and demons.

A neighbor said he saw the man’s body just outside the entrance to the home. The woman died inside, he said. 

Their identities have not been released because their families have not been notified.

Sahagun, Vives and Fernandez reported from Lake Isabella, Calif. Times staff writers Zahira Torres and Abby Sewell contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

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UPDATES:

12:32 p.m.: This story has been updated with new information regarding damage and weather conditions.  

10:11 a.m.: This story was updated with new information about evacuees.


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