2 Dead as Wildfire Ravages California County

     BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) — Authorities said Friday night that weather and topography are the biggest challenges facing firefighters combating a fast-moving wildfire that has scorched thousands of acres in eastern Kern County, Calif.
     A few minutes into a Friday evening press conference, a gust of wind blustered through the event area, knocking cameras askew and tugging at coats and hats.
     “Did you guys feel that wind right there?” Fire Capt. Tyler Townsend asked as he took the podium. “That’s one of the many things firefighters out on the line are dealing with today. It’s hot weather, steep rugged terrain, light, flashy fuels, dry brush — that’s the three elements that create a fast-moving wildfire.”
     Townsend said the Erskine fire has grown 30 percent to about 30,000 acres thanks to the hot, dry weather and strong winds. The wildfire is currently between zero to 5 percent contained.
     “Firefighters have been working through the night. We’re finally pulling some of them off the line as we get new firefighters to replace them on the line. But most of them have been up for the last 48 hours,” Townsend said.
     California Team 5 was scheduled to take over command at 8 p.m. Friday, according to the Erskine wildfire’s InciWeb page.
     The fire started over 24 hours ago at the base of a mountain near the intersection of Apollo Way and Erskine Creek Road, off Highway 178. Within hours it mushroomed from a small, two-acre grassfire to a raging inferno, authorities said.
     Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said the mountain where the fire started burns every summer — but not like this.
     “It burns to the top and then stops. And it’s spectacular and it’s over with. This one actually, when it got to the top it went over and it just went in different directions” due to the wind, Youngblood said.
     When asked where the two people who died in the fire were from and where they were found, Youngblood said his office is not releasing that information until they go back over the rubble with cadaver dogs to see if there are more victims.
     He did say that authorities believe the two victims were trying to escape the fire but were overcome with smoke.
     Several hundred people have been evacuated, with more evacuation notices expected to come as the fire continues threatening homes. All of the south side of Lake Isabella is in immediate danger, Townsend said.
     “If we haven’t evacuated you yet, be ready to go at a moment’s notice,” he added.
     Youngblood said between 20 to 40 deputies were going door-to-door Friday issuing evacuation notices, and that the entire organization is working 12-hour shifts.
     A spokeswoman with the Red Cross said the only official evacuation center is currently at Kernville Elementary School.
     They had 140 people stay there Thursday overnight, though those numbers had fallen to around 115 by noon Friday, she said.
     The Red Cross has donation centers set up at local Goodwill Stores and is asking for household goods and clothes. They have plenty of food at this time.
     People can search for loved ones who have gone to a shelter through the Red Cross website at https://safeandwell.communityos.org/cms/index.php.
     Around 9 p.m. Friday, the Kern County Fire Department posted on its Facebook page a notice that an additional shelter had opened at St. Jude’s Catholic Church in Wofford Heights.
     Youngblood cautioned those seeking to return to the homes that had not been burned to wait until conditions improve.
     “The problem is that this fire keeps shifting and, as you know, we allow people to go back into their homes. We can’t make them leave. But if that fire shifts, we’re going to have more casualties,” he said.
     He urged people to honor the road closures and stay as far away from the fire as possible.
     “This is still a very hot zone. It’s for everybody’s safety,” Youngblood said.
     The fire has captured the attention of many people across the state, including several members of state Congress and Senate.
     California Gov. Jerry Brown called Youngblood on Friday afternoon, very concerned with the situation, Youngblood said.
     “We have a lot of eyes watching and we have a lot of resources that we’re trying to throw at this to get you people back in your homes as quickly as possible,” he said.
     The governor declared a state of emergency in Kern County Friday afternoon due to the Erskine fire.
     “Anne and I extend our heartfelt sympathies to everyone impacted by this destructive blaze,” Brown said in a statement. “We join all Californians in expressing our gratitude to the courageous firefighters, emergency personnel and volunteers working tirelessly throughout Kern County to help residents and extinguish this fire.”

     Photo credit: Ryan Babroff via Associated Press.
     Photo caption: Kern County firefighters move on a fast burning wildfire burning near Yankee Canyon and State Route 178 near Lake Isabella, Calif. on Friday.

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