Erskine Fire: 2 killed in fire identified; some residents can return home

A pickup truck passes by the remains of mobile homes devastated by a wildfire, Saturday, June 25, 2016, in South Lake, Calif.
A pickup truck passes by the remains of mobile homes devastated by a wildfire, Saturday, June 25, 2016, in South Lake, Calif.
Jae C. Hong/AP
A pickup truck passes by the remains of mobile homes devastated by a wildfire, Saturday, June 25, 2016, in South Lake, Calif.
Lucas Martin pulls a cast iron frying pan out of the ashes of his fire ravaged home in South Lake, Calif., Sunday, June 26, 2016. Martin's home was among the more than 200 homes and buildings destroyed by the fire that swept through the area near Lake Isabella, Calif.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
A pickup truck passes by the remains of mobile homes devastated by a wildfire, Saturday, June 25, 2016, in South Lake, Calif.
Brittany Thompson and Aquivo Sun hug each other after going through the burned out remains of the their home Sunday, June 26, 2016, in South Lake, Calif. A deadly wildfire in central California has burned hundreds of homes.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
A pickup truck passes by the remains of mobile homes devastated by a wildfire, Saturday, June 25, 2016, in South Lake, Calif.
A scorched tree and devastated mobile homes are backdropped by a wildfire continuing to burn, Saturday, June 25, 2016, in South Lake, Calif.
Jae C. Hong/AP

Evacuations & closures | Health warnings

Update 6:37 p.m. 2 people killed in fire identified as a priest and his wife

The two people killed in the Erskine Fire have been identified as Byron and Gladys McKaig. Byron McKaig was an Anglican priest in the St. Peter's congregation in Kernville, according to a statement from Bishop Eric Menees of the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin.

"The members of this congregation are grieving the death of Fr. Byron and Gladys McKaig, who were overcome by smoke and flames and perished in this horrific fire," a call to prayer issued by the bishop read. "Please pray for Deacon Tom Hunt, who pastors St. Peters, as he ministers to so many in his community as they grieve the loss of property and pets, and still search for loved ones. Please pray for the McKaig children: Susan, Amy, and Lisa, as they grieve the death of their father and stepmother."

A tentative date of July 23 has been set for a memorial service for the McKaigs, according to the bishop's statement, with the service date dependent on how long the fire burns and whether the mountain community is accessible.

Updated 2:57 p.m.: Some residents can return home

A wildfire that broke out late last week and quickly overwhelmed whole towns near Lake Isabella in Kern County has so far cost an estimated $7.6 million, killed two people and destroyed 200 homes.

Fire officials released the latest estimate of damages late Monday morning, as firefighters strove to increase containment on the Erskine Fire in the midst of another heat wave.

More than 2,000 firefighting personnel were deployed to help battle the fire, which has been fueled by early summer heat and brush left extremely dry by years of drought.

A drone flying into the area on Sunday caused a temporary halt to air operations, but otherwise air support has been effective in slowing down the fire’s spread, buying time for firefighters to create containment lines, according to fire officials.

Officials now expect the fire to be fully contained by Thursday, June 30, and some residents were told Monday they could return home.

But others continued to wait in suspense to find out whether their homes were still standing.

“That’s the big question in everybody’s mind: ‘Is my home there?’” said Robert Larsen, who has lived in Kern County for four years and was homeless before living in his trailer.

Larsen had no means of transportation when evacuations got underway, so he and his two beagles were eventually taken to a shelter by a sheriff. On the ride over he said he saw flames consuming telephone poles.

“It was like going through WWII,” Larsen told Take Two.

Right now, he said, he along with the others at a shelter are stressed as they await news on whether theirs is one of the 200 homes destroyed by flames.

“I worked very hard for that house. I paid cash for it, and to lose something like that and to go back to a homeless state, it’s really going to make it really hard,” he said.

Meanwhile, sheriff’s officials have confirmed that the burned remains discovered on a property in the 4100 block of Fiddleneck in South Lake were from an animal and not a human.

The remains had been so badly burned it was difficult to make that determination on scene. The coroner’s office made its determination after analyzing the remains in Bakersfield.

The next community meeting has been scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at Woodrow W. Wallace Middle School in Lake Isabella.

Fire Tracker: Erskine Fire in Kern County

Evacuations & closures

At noon, several areas were set to reopen for residents to return home.

Yankee Canyon and Mountain Mesa are open but currently without power, and bottled water is being made available, according to the Kern County Fire Department.

Also open are areas east of South Lake along Highway 178, Larson Tract, Navajo, Hillview Acres, Bella Vista and Weldon. All of these areas have electrical power, according to the fire department.

Squirrel Valley will remain closed, as will South Lake.

“All of the neighborhoods that were impacted by fire — those are still closed," Anne Grandy with the Sierra National Forest told KPCC. “There’s a damage assessment team working right now for the next few days to determine when it’s safe to go back in. We don’t have any timeline on that, they’re just working as quickly as they can so that folks can get back in.”

The American Red Cross of Kern County continues to operate two shelters for residents affected by the fire. They are:

The Sheriff’s Department released a statement urging the public to call directly to report a missing friend or family member rather than relying on social media. That number is 661–861–3110.

Anyone trying to locate a loved one can also try the Red Cross's Safe and Well website.

Road closures are in effect for McCray Road and Dogwood, Entrada and Highway 178, and Kelso Valley Road and Kelso Creek Road.

Health warnings

The Kern County Public Health Services Department released several health warnings for the region.

Anyone with a compromised water system has been urged to take precautions. The health department released a set of instructions on how to disinfect your drinking water by boiling or treating with a bleach solution. You can read those instructions below.

Health officials also warned against attempting to haul away or sift through debris and ash left by the fire. The building materials used in homes could include asbestos or even lead, and dangerous products like household cleaners and pesticides that may have been stored at homes could leave traces of hazardous materials behind. Disturbing the ash and debris can make those materials airborne and put people at risk of injury from inhalation.

The Health Department said it would release further instructions on how to handle the debris.

A smoke advisory is in effect for residents of Kern River Valley and Indian Wells Valley. While the entire Kern River Valley has been affected by smoke from the Erskine Fire, the communities of Bella Vista, Bodfish, South Fork, Weldon, Onyx, Lakeland Estates, Mountain Mesa, South Lake, Squirrel Valley and Yankee Canyon are likely to be the most heavily impacted, according to the Eastern Kern Air Pollution Control District.

Other communities that could be impacted by smoke include:

7:01 a.m.: Firefighters advance on deadly central California wildfire

Firefighters advanced Sunday on a wildfire in central California that has claimed two lives and destroyed 200 homes.

Federal fire officials said containment on the 68-square-mile Erskine Fire in Kern County increased from 10 percent to 40 percent.

Some 2,000 firefighters were battling the blaze, which destroyed many homes belonging to retirees on fixed incomes with few other possessions.

"Most people here, this is all they had," said Daniel O'Brien, 53, who lost two rental mobile homes. "You have these moments where you just want to break down crying and fall apart."

Still, Anne Grandy with the Sierra National Forest says it isn't that simple.

“It’s so heartbreaking, because they think, ‘Well, they could’ve saved my home,’ and it happens during every fire, and I just wish I could send out a message to everyone that has lost property that, even if they felt people weren’t responding in a timely manner," Grandy told KPCC. "They did do everything they could to save houses, and I spoke with a firefighter that did save somebody’s house, and everything else around him burned."

Grandy said that, in the end, safety is the highest priority.

“A firefighter’s and emergency personnel safety is the highest priority — and yet you still hear those stories too that they were risking their lives. You just always want people to know how hard people work to save as much property as they possibly can, and to remain safe," Grandy said.

The death toll stood at two, but officials warned that it might rise. Cadaver dogs were being brought in Sunday to search for remains.

On Saturday, firefighters found what appeared to be a set of human remains farther up the street from O'Brien's two rental homes. The remains were so badly burned forensic investigators will have to determine whether they belong to a person or animal, Kern County Sheriff's spokesman Ray Pruitt said.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, freeing up money and resources to fight the fire and to clean up in the aftermath. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also authorized the use of funds for firefighting efforts, fire officials said.

The fire tore through small communities of houses and mobile homes that surround the lake — actually a reservoir — and the Kern River, a popular spot for fishing and whitewater rafting. The communities are nestled in the foothills of the southern Sierra Nevada, a mountain range that runs hundreds of miles north and south through eastern California. Seventy-five homes were damaged.

Scorching heat and tinder-dry conditions across the West have contributed to massive wildfires in the past week that have destroyed properties and forced residents to seek shelter.

Since it began Thursday, the fire has swept through 43,460 acres of parched brush and timber. It moved so quickly that some residents barely had time to escape — and two didn't.

An elderly couple apparently was overcome by smoke as they tried to flee, county Sheriff Donny Youngblood said. Their bodies were found Friday, but their names haven't been released.

Torin Swinland, 46, and his 81-year-old mother fled to a nearby park after smelling smoke and seeing flames racing down the hillside toward their community.

They returned to find four garages filled with valuables incinerated. Their home escaped any major damage, though embers were still burning near the property when they got back. The two used water from a hot tub to douse the cinders.

While upset by his own losses, Swinland said he felt worse for those left with nothing.

"They don't have near what I have left," he said.

Armario reported from Los Angeles. Reporter Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

This story has been updated.