BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) — Officials are letting people return to some mountain towns east of Bakersfield as firefighters continue battling what Fire Chief Brian Marshall called “the most destructive wildfire in Kern County history.”
The Erskine Fire has burned more than 73 square miles in rugged terrain south of Lake Isabella. More than 200 houses have been destroyed, and dozens of other structures.
Byron McKaig, 81, an Anglican priest, died Friday with his 90-year-old wife, Agnes, apparently of smoke inhalation.
The town of South Lake was virtually destroyed, but fire officials have begun letting residents return there and to some nearby communities, to see what, if anything, is left.
“When you have structures destroyed in a wildfire like this, the people were escaping barely within an inch of their lives, that fire was moving so fast,” Marshall said.
“The houses that have burned down, they’ve lost their driver’s license, Social Security card, all of that type of vital information that we need every day.”
Marshall said he expects a Kern County emergency declaration to be seconded by the state, and that “this disaster proclamation will go all the way to the president.”
The fire was 60 percent contained Wednesday morning and officials hoped to have it 100 percent contained by Thursday morning.
Fueled by dry brush, small trees and heavy winds, the Erskine Fire has burned at least 46,679 acres. The cost of fighting it already has come to $13 million.
Marshall said the focus is shifting toward recovery, that the goal is to get people back into their homes as soon as possible, but he called it a “very complex” process, as the devastation has made many areas unsafe.
“Downed electrical power lines, hot ash, burning trees that could fall — all of these items need to be mitigated by our firefighters and other agencies that are assisting in this operation,” Marshall said.
Deputy Fire Chief Brent Moon said his department is working with the Emergency Operation Center to establish a call center to let people know when they can return to their homes.
Stage one, which began Monday, opened up Yankee Canyon, Mountain Mesa and communities east of South Lake, which were largely unburned.
In stage two, a transition center was opened at Woodrow W. Wallace Middle School in Lake Isabella to support residents returning to their homes.
Squirrel Valley residents with ID were allowed to return at 8 p.m. Monday, but the community of South Lake is still closed.
Of the 32 water systems affected, three have been issued a “do not drink” order and eight have received a “boil water” notice.
The Department of Public Safety has sent four teams into the area, to assess damage to homes and businesses, and problems that may arise from chemicals, propane tanks, asbestos from old homes, and lead contamination, Director of Public Safety Matt Constantine said.
Megan Hughes with the Red Cross asked people to make financial donations through the Red Cross website or telephone number. Nonmonetary donations can be dropped off at the Elks Lodge in Wofford Heights and at Good Will stores in Kern County, which will provide vouchers to victims so they can get anything they need for free.
The recovery center will offer medical attention, mental health services, insurance documentation, and counseling — “quite a cadre of assistance there for those people,” Deputy Chief Moon said.
“Even though we are reporting 200 totally destroyed single family dwellings, there are numerous other single family homes that have been damaged,” chief Marshall said. “So this is a lot of damage. This is going to go down as the most destructive wildfire in Kern County’s history.
Marshall said that though fire crews are gaining the upper hand, wind could drive the fire north and west toward the communities Lake Isabella and Bodfish.
“It remains a dynamic situation until the fire is 100 percent controlled and contained, completely out. Yeah, there’s still more threats out there,” Marshall said.
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