An out-of-control, wind-driven wildfire burning in the Lake Isabella area of Kern County has left two people dead, destroyed about 100 homes and has grown to about 30,000 acres in less than a day, prompting Gov. Jerry Brown to issue a state of emergency in the area.
The two fatalities were confirmed by the Kern County Fire Department about noon Friday.
A man and a woman were found outside one of the homes that burned down, and it appears that they were trying to get to safety when they were killed, said Ray Pruitt, a spokesman for the Kern County Sheriff’s Office. The Associated Press later reported that the man and woman were an elderly couple. The victims have not been identified.
Homicide detectives were at the scene where the bodies were found, but it is unclear exactly how they died and how the fire started, Pruitt said. The department said firefighters were still “engaged in firefighting operations and are beginning the damage assessment process.”
Officials are also continuing to search for additional victims using cadaver dogs.
Dubbed the Erskine Fire, the blaze had burned about 30,000 acres and destroyed close to 100 structures, with an additional 1,500 threatened, the federal InciWeb information page stated Friday evening.
Brown issued a state of emergency for Kern County and said in a statement that he and his wife “extend (their) heartfelt sympathies to everyone impacted by this destructive blaze.”
The blaze started about 4 p.m. Thursday, and had burned nearly 30 square miles in 18 hours.
Before the acreage was updated, authorities had said the fire was at 8,000 acres earlier Friday morning and was later reported at more than 19,000 acres. Officials said it had grown about 30 percent to 30,000 acres by 6 p.m.
“We had a lot of destruction yesterday,” county fire Capt. Tyler Townsend said Friday afternoon. “This fire … it exploded. It went from 2 to thousands of acres within hours.”
Bakersfield television station KGET reported more homes were burning Friday afternoon along Kelso Valley Road.
The blaze was 5 percent contained, and strong winds were increasing fire activity Friday evening.
“The mountainous terrain, five years of drought and wind gusts of over 20 mph all drove a fire over 11 miles in 13 hours,” said county fire Chief Brian Marshall.
“Our firefighters … have been engaged in a firefight of epic proportions, trying to save every structure possible.”
Marshall said there were not enough fire engines and firefighters to put in front of every structure.
“Once a home is a quarter or more involved, we have to move onto the next one,” Townsend told KTLA.
Jerry Sietsma, a homeowner near where the fire is burning, got his family out of the area then helped neighbors fight off the flames.
“Some people were in their houses and didn’t know what was going on,” Sietsma said. “They thought the fire was on the other side of the hill… but I said ‘no, it’s here.’”
He added that he knows many people who lost their homes during the blaze.
“They have no home, and that’s hard,” Sietsma said while choking up.
Ken Kasha, his wife and their pets scrambled to get out of the way of the fast moving flames Friday and were able to leave their home safely.
“It was panic,” he said.
“I always said that I was going to fight the wildfires to safe my house, but when a 20-foot wall of flames comes down on your house, you’re out of there.”
The fire began about close to Erskine Creek Road and Apollo Way in the Lake Isabella area, on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property.
Several hundred firefighters were headed to the area to assist the 350 already battling the wildfire, according to the InciWeb page. By Friday afternoon, that figure was at about 800 firefighters, with several hundred more on the way.
When the San Gabriel Complex fires broke out Monday above Azusa and Duarte, it took two days for staffing to increase due to the number of firefighters deployed to large fires in Santa Barbara and San Diego counties.
As of Friday morning, about 1,256 firefighters were at the 5,267-acre San Gabriel Complex; 772 firefighters on the 7,474-acre Sherpa Fire in Santa Barbara County; and 1,937 firefighters at the 7,483-acre Border Fire in San Diego County.
The Erskine Fire was expected to continue to destroy more homes and char additional acreage on Friday, Marshall said.
“Hopefully Mother Nature will cooperate and the winds will lessen and allow our firefighters a fighting chance,” Marshall said.
Three firefighters have suffered smoke inhalation injuries while battling the blaze, which was quickly burning amid windy conditions in the steep and rugged terrain.
Residents in Lake Isabella and the Erskine Creek area were told to be on alert for evacuation orders.
Evacuations were in effect for the areas of Bella Vista, South Fork, Weldon, Onyx, Lakeland Estates, Mountain Mesa, South Lake, Squirrel Valley, and Yankee Canyon.
A primary evacuation center was opened at Kernville Elementary School, where 125 evacuees were staying, according to InciWeb.
The American Red Cross of Kern County on Friday evening opened an additional shelter for residents affected by the blaze at St. Jude’s Catholic Church, 86 Nellie Dent Dr., in Wofford Heights.
Highway 178 was closed at Highway 155 and at Sierra Way.
Lake Isabella is a popular fishing and recreation destination in the Kern River Valley, about 40 miles northeast of Bakersfield, and about 115 miles directly north of downtown Los Angeles.
— SLOStringer (@SLOStringer) June 24, 2016
KTLA’s Cindy Von Quednow contributed to this story.