A wildfire that broke out Thursday afternoon in Kern County quickly tore through a wide area, overwhelming firefighters and burning dozens of homes.
The Erskine Fire was small when it broke out shortly before 4 p.m. but was driven by winds of over 20 mph, mountainous terrain and five years of drought, Kern County Fire Chief Brian Marshall said at an early Friday morning press conference.
- Sun. 10:34 a.m. Fire 10% contained; 200 structures destroyed; crews looking to take advantage of lighter winds
- Sat. 10:30 a.m. Fire grows to more than 35,000 acres; additional evacuation center opened
- Fri. 6:18 p.m. Erskine Fire grows 30 percent; power, cellphone coverage impacted; hospital evacuated
- Fri. 4:50 p.m. Gov. Brown declares state of emergency for Kern County
- Fri. 12:26 p.m. 2 fatalities in Erskine Fire
- Fri. 8:38 a.m. Erskine Fire burns out of control
Watch video of the fire burning from High Desert News:
The fire held steady Saturday night and as of Sunday morning, it has been 10 percent contained. It has burned 36,810 acres and destroyed 200 structures. Firefighters are hoping to take advantage of lighter winds forecast for Sunday but temperatures in the 90s and low humidity remain a challenge. Two fatalities have been confirmed. Precautionary evacuations are recommended for Squirrel Valley, Mountain Mesa, South Lake, Lake Isabella (Erskine Creek area) and the Weldon area, which includes Landers Meadow and Clareville.
Early Sunday morning, operations section chief Joe Reyes said he expects additional containment along the fire's northeast edge within the next 12 to 24 hours. The southern edge of the fire remains its most active.
150 single-family homes have been destroyed and another 2,500 structures are threatened. Dry conditions and hot weather — with temperatures between 90 and 95 degrees on Saturday and Sunday — mean firefighters can expect a tough weekend. Saturday could see wind gusts of up to 25 miles per hour but the winds are expected to die down on Sunday. The fire is not at all contained. The American Red Cross of Kern County has opened an additional shelter at St. Jude’s Catholic Church in Wofford Heights.
Update Fri. 6:18 p.m. Erskine Fire grows 30 percent; power, cellphone coverage impacted; hospital evacuated
The fire grew at least 30 percent on Friday, Kern County Fire Department Capt. Tyler Townsend said at a Friday evening press conference.
There were no mandatory evacuations as of Friday evening, though there were recommended evacuations. There was no estimate on when those evacuations will be lifted. Authorities attributed that due to the fire continuing to shift.
The two people who authorities know were killed by the fire are believed to have been trying to escape, according to authorities. They got out of their home and were together, but were overcome by smoke.
Cellphone coverage was impacted Friday, but a temporary AT&T tower was set to be put up on Saturday, according to authorities.
Power lines were going down throughout the area, Townsend said. A hospital was evacuated Friday due to its power going out, keeping the hospital from being operational.
Three firefighters were transferred to be treated with minor to moderate smoke inhalation, Townsend said.
Firefighters continued to face strong winds on Friday, Townsend said. The fire was moving with the winds in an easterly direction. Authorities did not know what caused the fire as of Friday evening.
More than 140 people spent the night at a shelter on Thursday night.
A state of emergency was declared by California Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday in Kern County due to the effects of the Erskine Fire, according to a statement from Brown's office. The declaration makes more resources available to aid in fighting the fire.
The statement noted that the fire has claimed multiple lives, caused the evacuation of thousands of residents, burned thousands of acres and damaged both homes and infrastructure, including power lines.
A Federal Fire Management Assistance Grant has been requested and approved for the fire, according to the statement.
"Anne and I extend our heartfelt sympathies to everyone impacted by this destructive blaze," Brown said in a statement.
Brown also cited the state of emergency based on the state's drought that Brown declared on Jan. 17, 2014, noting that it has increased the severity and spread of fires in California.
Update Fri. 12:26 p.m. 2 fatalities in Erskine Fire
There have been two confirmed fatalities in the Erskine Fire so far, according to the Kern County Fire Department.
Firefighters were beginning to assess the damage from the fire so far, as of an update shortly after noon.
Fri. 8:38 a.m. Erskine Fire burns out of control
An estimated 80 homes have been destroyed and 1,500 residences were under evacuation orders. Officials said those numbers could increase significantly as it becomes easier to assess the damage in daylight.
“Our firefighters from all the agencies here in Kern County and coming throughout the state of California, have been engaged in a firefight of epic proportions, trying to save every structure possible,” Marshall said.
The fire has grown to more than 30,000 acres and continues to burn out of control.
The fire started at Erskine Creek Road and Apollo Way in Lake Isabella, but the cause is still under investigation.
Firefighters battled nonstop through the night to protect neighborhoods, but there simply weren’t enough trucks and crews to put in front of every structure, Marshall said. About 100 structures have been destroyed so far.
About 350 firefighters worked the fire on Thursday, but that number was expected to increase to 600 or 700 by the afternoon, according to Kern County fire spokesman Tyler Townsend.
Three firefighters were taken to a local hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation, but their injuries were thought to be minor to moderate, Townsend said.
The fire is burning through a mix of brush, juniper, and large and small trees. A video shot by Townsend showed some of the devastation.
Conditions were not expected to improve Friday, which means the fire “will continue to move actively, chewing up more land, threatening more homes, destroying our mountainous communities up here in the Kern River Valley,” Marshall said.
With multiple fires burning throughout California, including the San Gabriel Complex Fire in Los Angeles County and the Border Fire farther south, firefighting resources have been summoned from across the state.
In addition to firefighters from Kern County, personnel from the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies “large and small” are being sent to assist, Townsend said.
“To protect structures and control the fire, we’re using hand crews, bulldozers, air tankers, helicopters, everything in our arsenal to stop this massive, devastating wildland fire,” Marshall said.
Fire officials urged all residents ordered to evacuate to comply after reports that some homeowners were remaining behind.
Townsend said law enforcement had gone door-to-door to notify people it was time to leave.
When people choose not to leave, it can lead to danger for themselves, for firefighters and for the community, Townsend said.
Meanwhile, Townsend stressed the importance of homeowners complying with defensible space requirements. These rules apply to residents who live within wildland urban interface areas and require homeowners to clear space around the home to make it harder for the fire to jump to structures.
The deadline for homeowners to meet this requirement was earlier in June, and fire officials were in the process of inspecting and issuing citations for anyone who hasn’t complied, Townsend said.
“Hazard reduction always plays into a wildland fire. Defensible space protects your home, your neighbor’s home, and your community,” Townsend said.
For up-to-the-minute updates and alerts directly from Kern County Fire Department, you can text the words “Follow @kerncountyfire” to 40404.
If you’re close to the area of the fire, however, you may experience cell service disruption. On Thursday, Kern County Fire officials said via Facebook that AT&T cell towers were not working because of the fire.
An advisory that will expire after midnight on Saturday night (or Sunday morning) says air quality may reach unhealthy levels in areas directly impacted by smoke. If you live in these areas, avoid vigorous outdoor or indoor exertion. Those who suffer from respiratory or heart disease, the elderly and children should remain indoors. Keep windows and doors closed. Run your air conditioner if you have one and keep the fresh air intake closed and the filter clean. Affected areas include portions of the West and East San Gabriel Valley, portions of metropolitan Riverside and much of the San Bernardino Valley, among other areas. The SCAQMD has a list of areas of direct smoke impact on its website.
The Kern County Fire Department is posting the latest info about evacuations and evacuation centers on its Facebook page.
The areas of Bella Vista, South Fork, Weldon, Onyx, Lakeland Estates, Mountain Mesa, South Lake, Squirrel Valley and Yankee Canyon are under evacuation orders. Authorities were recommending that those in Lake Isabella and Erskine Creek prepare to evacuate.
As of Friday afternoon, it was recommended that those from Highway 178 to Kelso Valley to Piute evacuate, according to an online posting.
The American Red Cross initially opened an evacuation shelter at Kernville Elementary School, located at 13350 Sierra Way. It later opened an additional shelter at St. Jude’s Catholic Church located at 86 Nellie Dent Dr. in Wofford Heights.
Animal Control is also assisting with the removal of large and small animals, Townsend said.
It is still unknown exactly how many people have been asked to evacuate, but about 1,500 homes were included in the evacuation order. Not all of those buildings had people in them, Townsend said.
Highway 178 is closed east of Lake Isabella at Highway 155 and Sierra Way, and it will likely remain closed throughout much of the firefighting effort, Townsend said.
David Klippel, 78, a retired police officer, said he didn't see much of a threat after receiving an automated call advising him to leave. That changed dramatically within an hour Thursday afternoon.
"I've never been so close to a fast-moving, ferocious fire. It was unbelievable," Klippel tells AP. "I almost didn't have time to get out." He later learned his house had caught fire.
A Red Cross Safe & Well site has been created for anyone trying to locate loved ones displaced by the fire.
The Red Cross said financial donations are still the quickest and best way to get help to those who need it.
If you’d like to help, you can visit redcross.org, call 1–800-RED-CROSS or text the word “REDCROSS” to 90999 to make a $10 donation.
For those preparing to deal with a fire, you can minimize the risk of wildfire damage to your home with a few preparations, according to the Association of California Insurance Companies:
- Clear dead brush, grass, shrubs and wood piles around your home to create at least 100 feet of defensible space.
- Cut back any tree branches over the house or near the chimney, and make sure there is at least 6 feet of clearance between any branches and the ground.
- Use fire-resistant materials in landscaping and around your home.
- Hold evacuation drills for the entire household, and make sure every family member knows what to do in case of a fire emergency.
Residents in fire-prone areas may want to make sure their property and belongings are financially protected in case a fire breaks out ahead of time, according to the insurance company organization. Here are some tips from them on how to prepare your insurance coverage:
- Do an annual insurance checkup and review your policies thoroughly. Most policies for homeowners will cover damage from fire, as well as wind and lightning; comprehensive auto insurance will cover damage from fire.
- Go over the details of your policies with your insurance company or agent to make sure you have the options that best fit your needs. Understand whether your policy will grant replacements for damaged items or reimbursements in cash. If you have any questions, here’s a list of toll-free phone numbers for insurance companies across the state, courtesy of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.
- Keep an inventory of all your belongings, along with photographic or video documentation and records of the age, value, make and model of major purchases. The more detailed the list, the easier recovery will be.
Cal Fire has additional resources available through their Ready for Wildfire page.
This story has been updated.