Local

For Erskine fire victims, no clear path to recovery

A photo from the Kern County Fire Department shows the wildfire that broke out late Thursday, June 23, 2016, quickly tearing through dozens of homes and prompting evacuations.
A photo from the Kern County Fire Department shows the wildfire that broke out late Thursday, June 23, 2016, quickly tearing through dozens of homes and prompting evacuations.
Kern County Fire Department
A photo from the Kern County Fire Department shows the wildfire that broke out late Thursday, June 23, 2016, quickly tearing through dozens of homes and prompting evacuations.
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 photo from the Kern County Fire Department shows the wildfire that broke out late Thursday, June 23, 2016, quickly tearing through dozens of homes and prompting evacuations.
The remains of Charlene Vehlewald's daughter's home that burned in the Erskine Fire northeast of Bakersfield.
Mary Plummer/KPCC
A photo from the Kern County Fire Department shows the wildfire that broke out late Thursday, June 23, 2016, quickly tearing through dozens of homes and prompting evacuations.
Nathan Bryant and his wife Krysti return to their demolished home in this Lake Isabella neighborhood where almost all of the homes were torched by the Erskine Fire.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
A photo from the Kern County Fire Department shows the wildfire that broke out late Thursday, June 23, 2016, quickly tearing through dozens of homes and prompting evacuations.
Southern California Edison workers assess the electricity situation amid South Lake homes in Lake Isabella destroyed by the Erskine Fire.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images


Listen to story

04:19
Download this story 2.0MB

Eighty-six-year-old Charlene Vehlewald sat in a car outside what was once her daughter's home in the South Lake community near Lake Isabella in Kern County.

The home burned to the ground in the Erskine Fire. Nearby, Vehlewald's own home was reduced to rubble, as was her nephew's.

"It’s almost like it’s ended my life. I’m 86 years old and I don’t know whether I’ll ever get another place or not," Vehlewald said on a dry, hot day in late July. 

In a long string of California wildfires, Erskine stands out as the most destructive so far this year and the 15th most destructive in state history. More than 250 homes were destroyed as the fire rolled over 48,000 acres northeast of Bakersfield and burned for about two weeks from June to July.

Two people died as they tried to flee the flames.

Fire Tracker: Erskine Fire in Kern County

Many residents of this rural, low-income community of a few thousand people now are faced with a monumental decision: stay and rebuild the homes and way of life they lost, or move away and try to start again.

The scene along Goat Farm Road near where Vehlewald sits in the passenger seat of a sedan — shoulders slightly hunched, purse at her feet — tells the story perhaps like no other. 

Home after home is destroyed. Empty lots are filled with charred remains of planters and fences and trees still standing but with blackened branches bent by the fire.

"I think the federal government should help us. You know, there's so many poor people here — they don't help anybody but the rich?" Vehlewald asked. "That's my question." 

Charlene Vehlewald sits in a car outside of her daughter's home that burned to the ground in the South Lake community northeast of Bakersfield. It was one of more than 250 homes destroyed by the Erskine Fire.
Charlene Vehlewald sits in a car outside of her daughter's home that burned to the ground in the South Lake community northeast of Bakersfield. It was one of more than 250 homes destroyed by the Erskine Fire.
Mary Plummer/KPCC

In July, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied federal fire recovery assistance to Erskine Fire victims. In a letter to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, FEMA said the magnitude of the fire didn't rise to a level where federal aid would be needed.

The news was a blow for many living in this high-poverty area – the median income here is only about $23,000 a year, according to recent census data.

FEMA's decision also left much of the recovery effort to Kern County agencies and local organizations such as All for One Movement, which is helping residents with their immediate needs. 

But while volunteers can distribute cold water and care packages, there are no ready answers for those grappling with the larger question of what they should do next. 

"I think a lot of people are just kind of waiting ... some are just waiting for insurance, some are waiting for somebody to tell them what to do," said Neal Preston, a co-founder of All for One Movement, which is headquartered in a mini-mall next to a gas station near some of the worst fire damage. 

Housing remains the biggest challenge among fire victims. As of the first week of August, there were still about 10 families living at a nearby campground, all with nowhere to go. The county is working with the state to bring in about 70 pre-fabricated homes to house people, but that help could take weeks or months to materialize. 

"Right now for the people who lost their homes, being displaced, finding interim housing for them and then moving on the path to long-term recovery to get them back home ... that's going to be a long road for many of these folks," said Georgianna Armstrong, emergency services manager for Kern County, who said an estimated 100 homes lost in the fire were not insured. 

An aerial image shows the aftermath of the Erskine Fire in Kern County.
An aerial image shows the aftermath of the Erskine Fire in Kern County.
Courtesy of Kern County

Armstrong acknowledged many expect more help from government, but said there are strict boundaries on what officials can and can't do to help. 

Some residents have decided to leave, telling neighbors the memories of the fire are just too much to bear. Others, though, said it's the memories that will keep them rooted in this place.

South Lake resident Sue Kaufman recalled how she escaped with minutes to spare before the fire consumed her mobile home.

"My fence was on fire, my tree was on fire. Embers was hitting me in the face. My neighbor's truck blew up in front of me," she said, remembering the frantic moment when she grabbed her four dogs and raced to her car. 

Kaufman was living alone after her husband’s death a few years ago.

"My husband and I, he was the love of my life, and we had purchased that home and we’d picked it out together," she said. "So it was very special to me. I had his ashes in an urn, which I did lose in the fire. My brother's ashes were in the house and some of my mother's ashes were in the house."

Kaufman said her family, her life and her memories are right on the spot where her home once stood, and she feels the needs to return. Unlike many who were unable to afford insurance, she had fire coverage and she has ordered a pre-fab home as a replacement.

There are still uncertainties in her life: the home's delivery date is up in the air and her property must first be cleared of debris. But for now, she's renting a home and hoping to be back on her property by Christmas.

Series: Forever Fire Season

This story is part of KPCC’s in-depth coverage of the reality of year-round fire season in Southern California. Over the next few weeks we'll cover those affected by the summer's destructive wildfires and efforts to develop better firefighting tools and reduce the risk of property damage.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts and questions below in the comments section or on our Facebook page.