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A year after Erskine Fire, residents slowly return to scarred community

This chain link fence and a sign warning visitors to beware pets named
This chain link fence and a sign warning visitors to beware pets named "Taco and Tiger" is what little remains after the Erskine Fire burned hundreds of mobile homes in South Lake near Lake Isabella.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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A year after the fast-moving Erskine Fire killed two and leveled nearly 300 homes around Lake Isabella, some burned-out residents have begun to return to the community of South Lake, where most of the destruction occurred.

But the neighborhood's mix of low-income families and fixed-income retirees could be changed forever.

Two folks who have come back are Kenny and Teresa Randazzo. They are 20-year residents of the Lake Isabella area whose home burned in the June 23, 2016, fire.

"You couldn't even see your hand in front of your face," Kenny Randazzo said. "It was so so smoky. There were whirlwinds of fire and things are blowing up."

Kenny and Teresa Randazzo ride away from the manufactured house provided by FEMA and the state Office of Emergency Services after their uninsured mobile home was burned in the June 2016 Erskine Fire.
Kenny and Teresa Randazzo ride away from the manufactured house provided by FEMA and the state Office of Emergency Services after their uninsured mobile home was burned in the June 2016 Erskine Fire.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

They moved to South Lake six years ago, settling into one of the double-wide mobile homes that were spaced five and six to the acre on a neat grid of home lots.  The no-sidewalk streets have happy names like Starbrite, and Radiant.

Most of the homes were purchased as vacation getaways in the '70s when South Lake was a new rural subdivision. Over the years, the vacationers gave way to full-timers and families -- about one-fifth of them renters, according to the most recent Census.

"It was a pretty good neighborhood," said Teresa Randazzo. "You know a lot of the people were low income."

 

All that's left on many of those lots are fences. Orderly chain link fences, black wrought iron fences, some nice picket fences. But the gates on these fences now open onto bare lots.

The extent of the fire's destruction in South Lake is visible on a Google satellite map. The image was made after the fire but before a multi-million dollar cleanup that scraped lots clear of burned-out vehicles and incinerated double-wide mobile homes.

The Randazzos, like many of the burned-out families, found shelter at local campgrounds around Lake Isabella. The Randazzos stayed at the Rivernook RV Campground along the Kern River.

"They had people stay in tents there for the first initial days, and then they started getting donations of trailers and stuff and moved people into trailers and let them stay there for free," Teresa Randazzo said.

While the Randazzos were living in a borrowed RV, the machinery of recovery was revving up. It was a slow process.

Cleanup was the first step.

South Lake resident Ed Dixon said the fire debris remained for several months.

"It was depressing to even drive home," he said.

A retired contractor who lives across the street from the Randazzo family, Dixon's home, which had no landscaping other than gravel, did not burn in the fire. He remembers standing on the roof of his mobile home and dousing it with water from the community's small water tank until the pressure dropped too far.

"There was a lot of these people had chickens and animals that burned and died in their yard, and the smell and it was pretty bad for a while," Dixon said.

State-funded work crews came through and scraped the lots bare, hauling off fire debris, ruined vehicles and melted aluminum siding. They even took away the soot-stained gravel that covered most of the yards.

Once cleared, insured residents who could afford to rebuild have  put up  small houses or hauled in new pre-fab homes, and that is changing the character of the neighborhood.

The Randazzo family will receive the deed to this manufactured house provided by FEMA and the state Office of Emergency Services if they live in it for the next three years.
The Randazzo family will receive the deed to this manufactured house provided by FEMA and the state Office of Emergency Services if they live in it for the next three years.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

"Yeah we had a bunch of older trailers. Now they're bringing in all new ones. so yeah it's going to be an upgrade. Definitely," Dixon said.

Despite those efforts, Dixon said many of his neighbors are either can’t or don’t want to rebuild.

"I’d say 50 percent of the people that were here are not coming back," Dixon said.

The key obstacle to South Lake residents returning to the community is that many were uninsured or underinsured, said Georgianna Armstrong, Kern County's emergency services manager. Some didn't have enough income to buy insurance, and some did not have big enough policies. Some homes, due to their age and condition, might have been uninsurable.

Some of those who won't rebuild are selling their lots. A scan of online real estate websites show a selection of South Lake residential lots, most selling for about $20,000.

Kern County struck a deal with with the state Office of Emergency Services and FEMA to bring 27 new mobile homes to South Lake.

Meantime, a coalition of donors and the county worked to raise money for other recovery costs that insurers didn’t cover, like repairing burned-over septic systems.

"It was a collaboration," said Kern County First District Supervisor Mick Gleason. "It is not a singular agency responsible for almost anything going on up there."

The state Office of Emergency Services picked up the $24.6 million tab for the post-fire cleanup and providing 27 mobile homes that FEMA had in its inventory in Northern California. FEMA had more than 70 mobile homes available, but just 27 families met the county's income and other critieria to receive one.

The homes went to uninsured, low-income South Lake households, including the Randazzo family.

"We just filled out the application we're low income and that pretty much did it," said Teresa Randazzo.

So, at a time when the fire could have permanently forced out some of South Lakes’ poorest residents, one in ten burned-out families is back.

If the Randazzos stay three years in the FEMA manufactured house as its primary residents, they will receive the deed to the structure. That’s a big help, but the couple says they’re still struggling to get their family back to normal.

"We’re getting there, we’re trying," Teresa Randazzo said. "A lot of donations have helped."

Special coverage: California's fire risk

This story is part of a full day of special coverage examining the summer fire season following this winter’s record rain and snow. Check out the rest of our coverage below:

Sierra fire risk: One place we looked is a favorite vacation spot for Southern Californians this time of year — the Sierra Nevada. KPCC’s Emily Guerin has more.

Extreme weather: In California, we went from extreme drought to extreme rain in less than a year. Take Two ventured into the hills with an ecologist to talk about how all the wet weather will factor in.