50 homes burn in fast-moving brush fire in Kern County

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An estimated 50 to 60 homes burned Thursday evening in a fast-moving fire that broke out in a rural area of Kern County, the most destructive blaze in a week of brush fires across Southern and Central California.

The Erskine fire was burning off Erskine Creek Road just south of Highway 178, near Lake Isabella in Squirrel Valley. The blaze is “extremely dangerous, extremely volatile,” said Kern County Fire Capt. Tyler Townsend.

“I’ve never been in a wildland fire where I’ve seen so many homes burn,” said Townsend, who has been in the area for nearly a decade. “It’s one of the most devastating I’ve ever seen.”

The California Highway Patrol set up road closures on Highway 178. Firefighters were evacuating residents and protecting structures in the path of the blaze, which was at 3,000 acres and growing.

Video from local TV stations showed the fire moving rapidly down a hillside and into a neighborhood of homes. Another video from the Kern County Fire Department showed some structures engulfed in flames as a large water tanker flew over the blaze.

Cathy Berlin sat with her three dogs, son and wife at the entrance of the Senior Center in Lake Isabella, wondering what would come next.

“We lost our house, I’ve lived in that house for as long as I’ve lived here, 14 years,” she said. “Now we’ve got nothing.”

Berlin’s house, a mobile home, was one of several mobile homes that burned in the flames of the Erskine Fire, which swept across the mountains rapidly.

Berlin was in Los Angeles on Thursday, taking a friend to the hospital when she heard of the fire.

“It took me five hours to get here, even though I went 90 miles per hour,” she said. “My family got out, but they didn’t have time to take anything except the dogs.”

The fire has burned about five square miles, and about 1,000 homes are under threat, including in the small rural communities of South Fork, Weldon, Onyx, Lakeland Estates, Yankee Canyon and Mountain Mesa.

Some houses were already little more than embers on the ground, while others were deep in flames.

Smoky haze could be seen for miles, and orange flames lighted the evening air as planes and helicopters made drops.

Conditions were the worst they could have been for a fire, said Geri Jackson, a spokeswoman with the Sequoia National Forest, one of several agencies responding to the blaze. Temperatures were in the high 90s, humidity was in the single digits and low teens, and the area was just coming off a weeklong wind advisory.

“The wind, the heat and the low humidity — all that does is just drive a fire,” Jackson said. “When the fire initially started, it took off quickly.”

The fire was also fueled by brush dried out from four years of drought, she said.

Within five hours of the fire being reported, it had grown from 200 acres to 3,000 acres and destroyed at least 50 homes, according to estimates from the Kern County Fire Department.

Power was out at 6,488 homes, a representative from Southern California Edison said. AT&T cell service was also out, making it difficult for residents to communicate with loved ones and officials.

Evacuation centers have been set up at the Kern River Valley Senior Center at 6405 Lake Isabella Blvd. and Kern Valley High School at 3340 Erskine Creek Road. T A local television news station reported long lines of people at the high school, waiting to use a land line to make a phone call.

The Kernville Elementary School, “Home of the Mountaineers,” was home to more than 100 people who were evacuated from their homes in Lake Isabella on Thursday night.

Tammera Lopez, a single mother of three, said she had just sold her home and bought a new one when her neighborhood of South Lake was evacuated.

“All of my stuff is in cardboard boxes,” she said. “Perfect kindling. I don’t know. I don’t know if my dogs are all right. I don’t know if my house is safe.”

Lopez, who doesn’t own a car, said she left South Lake with her friend, their two families piled into one car.

“I have my daughter and my son with me,” she said. “My oldest is at camp. It was hard because my youngest girl realized her teddy bear, the one she’s had since birth, was in one of our cardboard boxes.”

Missing teddy bears are just the beginning of lost items that the Erskine fire survivors are worried about. Entire homes have burned, destroying clothes, food and important documents.

For Lopez, a teacher, the loss of everything is difficult but she remains aware that she still has her family.

“The most important things are here,” she said. “If we lose everything, God will provide.”

Ramon Williams sat leaning against the school sign for Kernville Elementary looking at the ground, red-eyed and in disbelief.

“That place shouldn’t have burnt down,” he said. “We kept our yard clean. We got three acres.”

Williams lost his mobile home to the Erskine fire, left with just the clothes he wore.

“I don’t have anything,” he said. “This is all I’ve got.”

Williams escaped from his home in Weldon with his wife and 10-year-old granddaughter.

“You couldn’t even see, you were just choking on it,” he said. “When we got out, the sky was bright orange. It was like something out of the Bible.”

Williams said he has fire insurance but doesn’t know if he would rebuild a home on the same land.

“After tonight, everything’s gonna change,” he said. “I don’t know what will happen next.”

The Kern County blaze is the latest of several major brush fires to hit Southern and Central California in the last two weeks.

In Santa Barbara County, the Sherpa fire forced hundreds to flee their homes north of Santa Barbara last week. Then this week, two fires in the hills above Azusa and Duarte forced more evacuations.

In San Diego County, firefighters increased containment Thursday of the Border fire just north of the U.S.-Mexico border that prompted mandatory evacuations for the entire east county community of Potrero. The Border fire has burned 6,840 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The Border fire has destroyed four outbuildings and left three firefighters with minor injuries. The cause is under investigation.

Temperatures in the Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara county mountains and valleys hovered in the 90s Thursday, but they could climb into the 100s by the weekend while coinciding with a drop in humidity and strong winds, National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Hall said.

A red flag warning — meaning weather conditions are prime for a fast-moving, destructive wildfire — was in effect for the those three counties, while a heat advisory was expected in Orange, San Diego and Riverside counties, the weather service said.

Weather conditions will get worse through the weekend, Hall said.

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