2 dead as Erskine Fire in Kern County grows to 30,000 acres

LAKE ISABELLA, Calif. (KABC) -- Two people have died in a fast-moving wildfire near Lake Isabella in Kern County, fire officials said. The blaze has charred 30,000 acres, destroyed 100 structures and forced hundreds of evacuations in rural communities.

As of Friday night, the fire was only at 5 percent containment. Approximately 80 of the 100 structures are homes, officials said.

Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency for Kern County for the fire.

"Anne and I extend our heartfelt sympathies to everyone impacted by this destructive blaze," Brown said. "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."

The blaze, dubbed the Erskine Fire, exploded in size quickly after breaking out in the area around 4 p.m. Thursday. By evening, it had burned through 5,000 acres due to low humidity conditions and high heat. Early Friday morning, it was around 8,000 acres before more than doubling in size around 10 a.m.

"The forces of nature collided with a spark," Kern County Fire Chief Brian Marshall said. "The mountain terrain, five years of drought and wind gusts of over 20 mph all drove a fire over 11 miles in 13 hours."

Fire officials said about 1,500 structures are still threatened by the blaze, which has prompted hundreds of evacuations including the Kern Valley Hospital.

About 800 firefighters are battling the blaze. Three were hospitalized after suffering smoke inhalation.

In Squirrel Valley, the fire claimed two lives. Neighbors said an elderly couple who had medical problems did not escape the fast-moving fire. The victims were not yet identified.

"It was actually a deputy who was in the area, and he was going door-to-door and came across this burned-out property, checked the property, and he located the two bodies," said Ray Pruitt of the Kern County Sheriff's Department.

Residents described a frantic flight from communities around Lake Isabella, a major destination for boating, fly fishing, rafting, hiking and camping.

Fred Caldwell said his home burned down to the ground and that he and his family had to run because of how close it was.

"You're never going to get it back...You can't get back pictures. You can't get back memorabilia. You're not going to get that back...it's material stuff though," he said.

Cachet Kirby, 22, of Mount Mesa, said she and neighbors grabbed clothes, blankets and their dogs, fleeing through thick smoke as flames came down the mountains.

"It was to the point you couldn't see, you couldn't breathe," she said.

She and others, exhausted Friday morning, were desperate for information about their homes.

"We could have gotten lucky and the wind shifted or our house could be burned down," Kirby said.

Cellphone service was out in many areas, contributing to the anxieties.

Authorities said Highway 178 was closed at Highway 155 and Sierra Way. The blaze is 35 miles northeast of Bakersfield.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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