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At Erskine fire memorial, community mourns elderly couple, struggles to move on

A picture of the McKaig family is displayed outside a memorial for Byron and Gladys McKaig on July 23, 2016, in Kernville, California. The couple was killed in the Erskine fire.
A picture of the McKaig family is displayed outside a memorial for Byron and Gladys McKaig on July 23, 2016, in Kernville, California. The couple was killed in the Erskine fire.
Mary Plummer/KPCC
A picture of the McKaig family is displayed outside a memorial for Byron and Gladys McKaig on July 23, 2016, in Kernville, California. The couple was killed in the Erskine fire.
At a memorial on July 23, 2916 in Kernville, California, a family friend reads a tribute written by Susan McKaig, daughter of Byron McKaig, who was killed in the Erskine fire. She attended the service but chose not to speak. "We can all take comfort knowing that they passed away quickly, literally in each others' arms," the tribute reads.
Mary Plummer/KPCC
A picture of the McKaig family is displayed outside a memorial for Byron and Gladys McKaig on July 23, 2016, in Kernville, California. The couple was killed in the Erskine fire.
A family photo sits in St. Peter's Church in Kernville, California, where Byron and Gladys McKaig were remembered. The couple lost their lives in the Esrkine fire in June 2016.
Mary Plummer/KPCC
A picture of the McKaig family is displayed outside a memorial for Byron and Gladys McKaig on July 23, 2016, in Kernville, California. The couple was killed in the Erskine fire.
The program for Byron and Gladys McKaig's memorial rests on a bench as attendees stand during the service held at St. Peter's Anglican Church in Kernville, California, on July 23, 2016.
Mary Plummer/KPCC
A picture of the McKaig family is displayed outside a memorial for Byron and Gladys McKaig on July 23, 2016, in Kernville, California. The couple was killed in the Erskine fire.
A photo from the Kern County Fire Department shows a view of the Erskine fire in Kernville, California, before it was contained on July 11, 2016. The fire killed two, burned about 48,000 acres and destroyed 309 structures.
Kern County Fire Department


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Mourners took up just four rows in St. Peter's Anglican Church over the weekend, but their emotions filled the small house of worship in Kernville, California, as the close-knit community came together to grieve for two of their own.

One woman wrapped her arm around a man next to her, clutching him in a strong bear hug during the ceremony. Another man wiped his face repeatedly as tears streamed down and kept falling. 

Family and friends of Byron and Gladys McKaig, the husband and wife killed over a month ago in the brutal Erskine wildfire, gathered Saturday to remember the couple's lives and reflect on their own.

Even as the firefighters battled blazes from the Santa Clarita area to a fire burning in the Klamath National Forest near the Oregon state line, the Erskine fire remains the most destructive California has seen this year and the 15th worst in the state's history.

For some of those gathered in St. Peter's, it was the first time since the fire broke out on June 23 that they've come together. For others, they were coming together again, having previously sought solace in the aftermath of the fire that had spread across tens of thousands of acres, leaving behind destroyed homes and possessions collected over long lifetimes. 

Relatives of the McKaigs who came from out of town joined local residents for the memorial and listened as Anglican Bishop Eric Menees led the service.

"The reality is our lives are different," he told them. "There's lots of anger throughout the community. How could this happen? Why didn't people do things? I wish there were a response to evil other than we live in a fallen world."

Menees, who knew the couple, said the memorial was a chance to mark the moment.

"We grieve. We acknowledge the depth of our sorrow," he said. "The hard truth is, is that they have been taken from our lives. There's no way to sugarcoat it."

Final moments haunt a community

For over two weeks, the wildfire burned through drought-dried mountain terrain northeast of Bakersfield, overwhelming local firefighters. By the time officials declared it contained on July 11, the fire had scorched 48,000 acres and 309 structures, said Capt. Tyler Townsend with the Kern County Fire Department. What caused the fire is still undetermined.

The McKaigs were the only ones to lose their lives in the Erskine fire. Their bodies were found outside the couple's home in Lake Isabella, his arms over her as though to protect her from what was inevitably to come.

In an interview in June with KPCC Thomas Hunt, the pastor at St. Peter's, remembered the couple.

"He was a good fellow," Hunt said of Byron McKaig, once a priest at St. Peter's. "He loved to talk about religion."

The couple had struggled with health issues in their final years, Hunt said. But they were always together and full of fun, friends said. They once both dyed their hair a bright red and introduced themselves as Lucy and Ricky, referring to characters played by comedienne Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz.

Shortly before the fire overcame the couple's home, Hunt spoke with Byron McKaig on the phone. Hunt said Byron told him that smoke was coming into the home and then he hung up. The call may well have been the couple's last. 

"They collapsed by the fence in their yard, and they died hugging each other," Hunt said.

Wesley Kutzner, a friend of the McKaigs who helped with the service, said dealing with the way the couple died has been tough. During the memorial, details of the couple's death were shared; some in attendance were hearing them for the first time.

The couple died of smoke inhalation as they were trying to escape, authorities had confirmed. They were found in one of the few areas of their property that wasn't scorched. Their beloved dachshund, Harley, was also lost to the fire. 

"You don't expect things like that to happen. But the other side of the coin is they went together and they loved each other so much," Kutzner said. "You didn't see one unless you saw the other." 

Community asks: where is the help?

As the community works to recover from the fire, many are still struggling to find housing. The fire ripped through a high-poverty area. Many people lived in mobile homes and some who lost their houses didn't have insurance. 

A community organization called All for One Movement has been leading many of the recovery efforts and has a website to take donations and coordinate offers of help. A collaboration of community groups has also set up the Erskine Fire Fund, aiming to raise money for those financially hurt by the fire.

But this is largely an unincorporated area, with no local government to marshal resources and lobby for help.

It's not clear how many people have been left homeless by the wildfire. 

More than 250 homes need to be rebuilt, according to Neal Preston, one of All for One Movement's founders, and the group estimates that about 10 families are living at a nearby campground with no permanent housing solution in sight. 

He estimates that, despite the hardship, 90 percent or more of the people affected by the fire will remain in the area. 

Few outside resources to help the community recover have materialized. On Friday, word came that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had denied the area any assistance. In a July 22 letter responding to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom's request for aid, FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate stated damage from the fire "was not of such severity and magnitude as to be beyond the capabilities of the state, affected local governments, and voluntary agencies."

The McKaigs' friend, Wesley Kutzner, said many of the fire victims are uncertain about their future.

“It’s hard to comprehend, the loss of material goods and the loss of the people. The people have suffered. Some of the people have lost everything and they have nowhere to go," he said. "Nor do they know what they’re going to do.”

Yet Kutzner said people here are a tough lot and will persevere. Evidence of that greets visitors outside the scorched remains of a home burned to the ground: a handwritten sign reads, "We will be back."

This story has been updated.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to comedienne Lucille Ball's husband, Desi Arnaz, as Ricky Ricardo, the character he played in the TV show, "I Love Lucy." KPCC regrets the error.