Deadly Kern County Wildfire Grows to 57 Square Miles

Additional possible human remains were found after two were confirmed dead in blaze.

A vast and voracious wildfire in Kern County, California, has scorched 57 square miles, destroyed more than 100 homes and killed an elderly couple as they tried to flee, authorities said.

Late Saturday afternoon, the Kern County Sheriff's Department confirmed possible burned human remains were found in a second location inside fire zone in the 4100 block of Fiddleneck Street in South Lake.

The massive blaze, dubbed the Erskine Fire, tore through several rural communities in central California, northeast of Bakersfield, authorities said. Entire blocks were reduced to rubble, and at least 2,500 homes remained threatened.

As of Saturday afternoon, 150 homes had been destroyed and another 75 were damaged. The damage may rise as firefighters went through neighborhoods to count houses and mobile homes incinerated by the blaze. 

Weather conditions that drove the fire through small southern Sierra Nevada communities with terrifying speed remained a worry, with low humidity and 30-mph steady winds forecast.

"That's something we have to keep an eye on. It could spark another disaster," Kern County Fire Engineer Anthony Romero said.

About 1,100 firefighters battled the flames.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, freeing up money and resources to fight the fire and to clean up in the aftermath. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also authorized the use of funds for firefighting efforts.

The wildfire erupted near Lake Isabella late Thursday afternoon amid heat in the 90s and single-digit humidity, climbing over at least three ridges into hillside neighborhoods, Kern County fire Capt. Tyler Townsend said.

Since it began, the fire has swept through 35,711 acres — nearly 56 square miles — of parched brush and timber. It moved so quickly that some residents barely had time to escape — and two didn't.

An elderly couple apparently were overcome by smoke as they tried to flee, county Sheriff Donny Youngblood said. Their bodies were found Friday but their names haven't been released.

Everett Evans, 45, fled Thursday as the fire came down a mountain with a roar toward his South Lake mobile home.

"When you hear a freight train, it's time to leave. You could hear it, you could see it, you could smell it," he said.

Evans said he knocked on doors to get neighbors to leave. Evans and his father, son and his son's girlfriend were in the convoy. But he has nothing left to come back to. Virtually no homes survived in his neighborhood.

A reporter visiting on Saturday found only a burned flag blowing in the wind on a flagpole above the rubble of Evans' home.

Evans hadn't been allowed back to the home but said he lost mementos and photos from his former marriage and years in the Marine Corps.

"That's all memories. You get to keep your life but you lose your memories," he said.

Shiela McFarland, 67, from Mountain Mesa, left her home three days ago, taking her computer, cellphone, papers and her miniature poodle, Snuggles.

At an evacuation center, she slept on a cot outdoors next to his kennel.

McFarland said she didn't know whether her home survived, but she was philosophical.

"It doesn't matter if I've lost everything," she said Saturday. "I've got my little dog, my kids and my grandkids. I've seen other people in worse shape."

The fire tore through small communities of houses and mobile homes that surround the lake -- actually a reservoir — and the Kern River, a popular spot for fishing and whitewater rafting. The communities are nestled in foothills of the Sierra Nevada, a mountain range that runs hundreds of miles north and south through eastern California.

Scorching heat and tinder-dry conditions across the West have contributed to massive wildfires in the past week that have destroyed properties and sent residents to seek shelter and hope for the best.

Laura Rogers was one of those who thought she'd never see her home or her brother's home again. Instead, she was lucky to find both standing in a neighborhood of mobile homes that was devastated.

"I was sure this place was gone last night," Rogers said through tears Friday as she gestured at the destruction around her. "I mean look at this, I can't believe it. It's like a scary movie."

The downspout of her brother's home was melted on the ground, but the structure was intact.

Dozens of other homes were gone, left in piles of charred sheet metal and cinderblock foundations. Scorched tricycles, air conditioners and TV dishes littered the landscape. Burned-out cars sat on tireless rims and leafless trees poked from barren, blackened dirt.

Evacuations were in place for residents in the ares of Hwy 178 to Kelso Valley to Paiute, Bella Vista, South Fork, Weldon, Onyx, Lakeland Estates, Mountain Mesa, South Lake and Squirrel Valley.

Shelters were set up by the American Red Cross of Kern County at St. Jude's Catholic Church and Kernville Elementary School. Highway 178 remained closed at Highway 155 and at Sierra Way, fire officials said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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