Wildfire burns more than 30,000 acres, prompting state of emergency; 2 dead, 100 structures lost


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.”


LATEST: Deadly Kern County wildfire grows — tough weekend ahead >>

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.

Live updates: Erskine fire »

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.

Dozens of homes burned Thursday evening in a fast-moving fire that broke out in a rural area of Kern County, the most destructive blaze in a week of brush fires across Southern and Central California.

“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.”

Conditions were the worst they could have been for a fire, said Geri Jackson, a spokeswoman with Sequoia National Forest, one of several agencies responding to the blaze. Temperatures were in the high 90s, humidity was in the single digits and low teens, and the area was just coming off a weeklong wind advisory.

“The wind, the heat and the low humidity — all that does is just drive a fire,” Jackson said. “When the fire initially started, it took off quickly.”

AT&T cellular phone service was also out, making it difficult for residents to communicate with loved ones and officials.

Cell service around the fire area has been “compromised” because of the fire, said Kern County Fire engineer Phil Neufeld.

Repair crews from Verizon have been in the area since Thursday night powering the company’s infrastructure with emergency generators, but they are running out of fuel to run them and backup is hours away, Neufeld said.

Residents in Bakersfield and other nearby communities have been struggling to reach loved ones in the Lake Isabella community.

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

In addition to Kernville Elementary School, evacuation centers had also been established at Lake Isabella’s senior center at 6405 Lake Isabella Blvd., and at Kern Valley High School at 3340 Erskine Creek Road. A local television station reported long lines of people at the high school, waiting to use a land line to make a phone call.

Kernville Elementary School, “Home of the Mountaineers,” was home to more than 100 people who were evacuated.

About 8 a.m. Friday, Anthony Romero, a spokesman for the Kern County Fire Department, gave the first fire briefing to evacuees at the elementary school.

When Romero told them 80 to 100 homes were lost, there was a mixture of gasps and small whispered comments among the residents.

The Kern County blaze is the latest of several major brush fires to hit Southern and Central California in the last two weeks.

In Santa Barbara County, the Sherpa fire forced hundreds to flee their homes north of Santa Barbara last week. This week, two fires in the hills above Azusa and Duarte forced more evacuations.

Azusa police announced that as of noon Friday, all evacuations would be lifted in Azusa.

In San Diego County, firefighters increased containment Thursday of the Border fire just north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for the entire east county community of Potrero. The Border fire has burned 7,483 acres and destroyed five homes, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Temperatures in the Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara county mountains and valleys hovered in the 90s Thursday, but they could climb into the 100s by the weekend while coinciding with a drop in humidity and strong winds, National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Hall said.

A red-flag warning — meaning weather conditions are prime for a fast-moving, destructive wildfire — was in effect for those three counties, while a heat advisory was expected in Orange, San Diego and Riverside counties, the weather service said.

A red-flag warning was also in effect for the Kern County mountains until 10 p.m., due to dry vegetation, low humidity, gusty winds and hot temperatures.

Weather conditions will get worse through the weekend, Hall said.

Vives and Fernandez reported from Lake Isabella, Mejia from Los Angeles. Los Angeles Times staff writers Matt Hamilton, Joseph Serna and Nina Agrawal contributed to this report.

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna on Twitter.


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6:11 p.m.: This article was updated with information about the fire burning more than 30,000 acres.

1:23 p.m.: This article was updated with a new count on firefighters on scene.

12:08 p.m.: This article was updated with information about two deaths in the fire, as well as additional details about the blaze and about the loss of cellular phone service.

10:13 a.m.: This article was updated with new details on the fire.

9:13 a.m.: This article was updated with new details on the fire and with evacuee comments.

8:21 a.m.: This article was updated with reaction from residents.

This article was originally published at 6:25 a.m.