A deadly wildfire in the Lake Isabella area of Kern County that has burned down some 150 structures and was threatening about 1,500 may have claimed another life as others as firefighters frantically worked Saturday to contain the out-of-control inferno.
Two people have died in the so-called Erskine Fire and investigators Saturday found burned remains, but they have not confirmed that the remains are human, Ray Pruitt, spokesman for the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, said during a community meeting at one of the evacuation centers.
Arson detectives and homicide investigators were at a mobile home in the 4100 block of Fiddleneck Street in South Lake late Saturday afternoon, Pruitt told the Los Angeles Times.
Two people, a man and a woman, died in the fire, the Kern County Fire Department said Friday around noon.
Their bodies were discovered outside a home that was destroyed, and it appeared they were trying to flee the flames when they were overcome, according to Pruitt.
Authorities believe the pair succumbed to smoke inhalation, the Los Angeles Times reported. Their identifications have not been released.
Less than two days after erupting, the Erskine Fire has left a path of destruction and devastation in its wake, charring nearly 56 square miles of the Southern Sierra Nevada and prompting the evacuations of numerous local residents, according to the federal InciWeb information page.
The blaze went from 5 percent containment Friday to 0 percent containment Saturday, according to a tweet from Cal Fire Chief of Public Information Daniel Berlant.
“They were real nice people, Gladys was part of the church, and she would play the organ up here … Byron was also part of the church," said Bill Johnson, a homeowner who knew the couple. “They were always together, and when I found them they were together, right at the edge of their property against the neighbors fence.”
“At first I didn’t think it was real, I was afraid to walk up and look,” he added, his voice choked with emotion. “I recognized Byron’s hair.”
The couple's home was among the residences in the neighborhood that was completely destroyed, Johnson said. He described the houses as "big oranges box burning."
“It was devastating, the whole entire place was on fire,” Johnson said of the neighborhood. “The entire place was this big inferno. It was real scary.”
Officials fear there may be more victims, and cadaver dogs have been brought in to search the burned out homes and terrain.
Three firefighters suffered from smoke inhalation while battling the blaze and were eventually released from the hospital, according to the Kern County Fire Department. It was not immediately clear if any other fire-related injuries have been reported.
The number of structures burned to the ground by the Erskine Fire increased Saturday to 150, with an additional 75 damaged, according to InciWeb.
The previous day, the figure stood at 100, but county fire Chief Brine Marshall had warned that the fire would destroy more homes as it increased in size.
Marshall called the event a "firefight of epic proportions."
One resident who lost his home even after trying to extinguish the flames himself said it took approximately 20 minutes before the fire spread throughout his property.
“Finally, I left … the smoke was so bad that I ended up having to belly crawl out of the garage," Joe Palme said.
The occupants were able to safely evacuate with their dogs and horses, but were unable to safe anything else.
“We’re over 70 years old. And to start all over, I don’t know,” Palme said, shaking his head.
With more homes expected to burn, residents in Lake Isabella and the Erskine Creek area have been urged to prepare for possible evacuations.
Evacuations have been ordered from: Highway 178 to Kelso Valley to Paiute, Bella Vista, South Fork, Weldon, Onyx, Lakeland Estates, Mountain Mesa, South Lake, Squirrel Valley, and Yankee Canyon, according to the InciWeb page.
Approximately 125 evacuees were staying the primary evacuation center at Kernville Elementary School, the page stated.
An additional shelter for evacuated residents was opened Friday evening by the American Red Cross at St. Jude’s Catholic Church, according to the county Fire Department.
Highway 178 also remained closed at Highway 155 and at Sierra Way, while the Pacific Crest Trail is shut down from Walker Basin Campground to Jawbone Canyon Road.
More than 1,100 firefighters have been working in extremely hot and dry conditions, as well as steep and difficult terrain, to contain and extinguish the fast-moving fire.
A combination of strong winds, lightly flash fuels and steep topography were producing "extreme fire behavior," making the firefight a challenging one.
Officials expected minimal growth along the north and west boundaries of the fires, but a combination of weather and terrain could create the potential for the fire to spread along the eastern and southern portions, according to InciWeb.
Temperatures were expected to reach 96 degrees in the Lake Isabella area Saturday, with lights winds of 5 to 10 mph expected to blow from a west southwest direction, according to the National Weather Service. A red flag warning is in effect for the area.
The combination of high temperatures, low humidity and wind continued to be a concern for fire crews, the InciWeb page stated.
"The mountainous terrain, five years of drought and wind gusts of over 20 mph all drove a fire over 11 miles in 13 hours," Marshall noted of the wildfire's quick growth.
The flames broke out shortly before 4 p.m. Thursday in the area of Erskine Creek Road and Apollo Way, on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property. It grew to nearly 30 square miles in a span of 18 hours.
"We had a lot of destruction yesterday," county fire Capt. Tyler Townsend said Friday afternoon. "This fire ... it exploded. It went from 2 to thousands of acres within hours."
Firefighting efforts are led by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and Kern County Fire District. Many other agencies are assisting, including CalFire, Red Cross, Caltrans, animal control, and local, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Kern County Friday, saying in a statement that he and his wife "extend (their) heartfelt sympathies to everyone impacted by this destructive blaze."
It was not known what sparked the deadly fire, but the cause was the subject of a criminal investigation, the Times reported.
Lake Isabella is a popular fishing and recreation destination in the Kern River Valley, about 40 miles northeast of Bakersfield, and about 115 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.
In the past week, Southern California has seen a series of major wildfires, including twin fires in the San Gabriel area that burned 5,267 acres and another blaze in San Diego County that affected 7,609 acres.