At first there was nothing to indicate that a small two-acre fire that started in the Lake Isabella area at around 4 p.m. would be much cause for concern. This is summer, this is Kern County and calls such as this come in frequently.
But this would be different. In just one hour, the wildfire spread at a speed that took everyone by surprise. I was working on a court story that Thursday when KBAK news director Jeff Lenk told me to drop it and sent not only me and a cameraman but two other crews to the fire.
What was going on, I thought?
Arriving at the command post in Lake Isabella, there was plenty of activity as planes dropped fire retardant on the surrounding hillsides where the smoke was high and emergency vehicles kept arriving.
A somber-looking Brian Marshall said it all.
“This is bad,” the Kern County fire chief said.
We headed east on Highway 178 to Squirrel Valley, quickly running into thick smoke and a much darker sky. On the way we stopped at the Paradise Cove Hotel; the place was in direct danger as flames were racing straight down the mountain, giving everything an orange glow.
We got out of the air-conditioned vehicle and were met by intense heat, swirling ashes and suffocating black smoke. We were coughing, wheezing and our irritated eyes tearing, made worse by wearing hard contact lenses.
Two apparent hotel employees were scurrying to load up a vehicle with belongings and then dashed out, but not before yelling out a warning to us.
“You guys be careful! I’m outta here!” said the driver.
We were there for less than 10 minutes, and the flames were now much closer, about 60 yards away. Shooting whatever video we could get, we were out of there as well, as thankfully we saw fire engines come to the rescue, saving the local landmark from going up in smoke.
The scene in Squirrel Valley was worse. Arriving on McCray Road, there were a dozen or so residents standing on the corner watching in disbelief as the fire destroyed numerous homes about half a mile away. Some held hands, others embraced, all were wondering if their homes would survive.
No one said anything at first. Words seemed so inadequate. Recognizing me from TV, people started telling their story.
“I inherited that house from my grandmother,” said a tearful Morgan Rivers as she could see her house on Shadow Mountain burn down. The 20-something-year-old was at work when the fire broke out and never had a chance to grab anything from her home.
Others began relating similar stories. One woman was filled with anxiety because her husband refused to evacuate and decided to stay behind to protect their home. About an hour later, the husband appeared in his loaded pickup truck.
And then the strangest conversation took place as he switched subjects. The husband said he was from Arkansas and was glad that I had once written about the “Grapes of Wrath,” the classic book by John Steinbeck that tells about the Okie migration to Kern County.
“These young kids need to know our local history," he said.
And for about 10 minutes, the man and his wife forgot about the devastation happening around us and recalled their own history of coming to Kern County. Then it was time for them to go, but their house was still standing.
By 11:30 p.m. we were left stuck in Squirrel Valley. Highway 178 was closed in both directions as fire was on the highway in one direction and downed power lines were in the other direction. It would be close to 3 a.m. before the CHP told us we could leave.
We were going home, unlike hundreds of others left without one.
Things got worse as an elderly couple were found dead inside their home in Squirrel Valley. Emotions were running higher as weary displaced residents wanted to know when they could return home or in some cases, did not know if their home was still standing.
The fire continued eating more land and homes. Firefighters, on duty for more than 24 hours and just as tired if not more than the residents, continued their battle in triple-digit heat as more of them from around the state and country came to help out.
Back on scene in Squirrel Valley, photographer Norberto Arroyo and I ran into a displaced family as we edited our story in the live van unit. Night was quickly approaching and out of nowhere, a family of three came walking down the road.
They were a husband and wife in their mid-20s and a boy around 5- or 6-years-old clutching a blanket draped around his shoulders. They looked and sounded tired, clothes dirty. They were on their way to a relative's house but their car broke down, and they couldn’t reach anyone as AT&T phone service was out.
“And no food,” the boy said.
The nearest shelter was miles away. I offered them a ride in a news vehicle and took them to a relative’s house on Cook Peak Road about half a mile away. I probably violated company policy by having non-station employees in the news car. Please don't tell my boss.
The house was empty, locked and lacked power. The little boy’s words of “no food” haunted me. Luckily, there were sandwiches, water, Gatorade and munchies in a cooler in our news vehicle, and I handed them everything. The wife was extremely appreciative as the three sat down in the driveway and began their meal.
As I pulled out of the driveway, I realized my headlights were their only source of light and the family was left in the dark as I drove away. I called 911 and the dispatcher said she would try to get a unit out to check on their welfare. Returning to check on them about an hour later, I found no one around.
Were they saved?
Some good news began pouring out.
Marshall told residents at a community meeting at Woodrow Wallace Elementary School that the plan was to get some evacuated residents into their homes starting at noon on Sunday, though it wouldn't be until Monday that some of the first displaced residents were allowed to go back.
Officials pleaded with the residents to be cooperative and acknowledged their worries during a question-and-answer session.
“Kern County is not abandoning you,” said 1st District Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason.
Though visibly frustrated, people appeared to be satisfied with the way officials were responding to the situation.
Later in the week, residents of South Lake were given the OK to return home. This community was hit extremely hard; whole blocks of homes were reduced to rubble.
Covering wildfires in Kern County for nearly 29 years, I do not recall one that spread so quickly, destroyed so many homes and claimed human lives.
On Fremontia Street, Rick Jones and Lori Wright could do nothing but comfort each other as they viewed what used to be their house.
“I don't recognize this at all. This can't be my house,” said Wright, who refused to believe what she was seeing.
They had no insurance. Now what?
“We don't know. We don't know,” she said as her voice trailed off.
Fifty-seven-year-old Tina Tharalson was among the fortunate ones whose homes were left standing on Wildrose Street.
Returning home, she was overcome with emotion as she entered her house and immediately started looking for her cats.
Her sister Mary Kay Tharalson flew in from Phoenix almost immediately after the fire started to check on Tina.
“The grace of God is astounding,” said Mary Kay as she surveyed the damage all around her sister's house. “And then I remember all of the families who were not so lucky.”
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.