Someone had already stolen Baby Jesus by the time Christine Gloss was able to return Wednesday to the remains of her home in South Lake, one of the communities hit hardest by the ongoing Erskine Fire.
Saddened though she was to discover a looter had dared to pick through her shed, taking tools and other things, Gloss retrieved survivors of her nativity scene — light-up Mary and Joseph decorations — and placed them in front of the charred, collapsed house she had rented for the last five years.
“I just put them out to praise God for all the lives that were saved,” the 54-year-old woman said.
On a day when road re-openings brought untold numbers of residents to the crushing realization the fire had claimed virtually all their possessions, and that looters were making off with much of the rest, a surprisingly positive outlook shone through. People were coming together in selflessness and charity, convinced the disaster would not weaken their community but strengthen it.
Consider, for example, the couple providing free housing to Gloss and 11 others, some of them strangers, in their two-bedroom, single-wide mobile home in Wofford Heights. Or the countless, anonymous individuals who continued to drop off food, water and clothing for residents left with next to nothing.
No doubt the fire’s aftermath presented much to lament or be angry about. But few seemed to be doing either, perhaps because they had more important things to do for their neighbors.
Pete June, manager of a South Lake donation center set up by an anonymous church, recalled a local couple’s efforts the day before to help anyone still suffering because of the fire — despite the fact their own home had burned to the ground and the young woman was pregnant.
“This community is going to bond and grow because of this disaster. It’s going to turn into a positive before it’s over. It’s the truth. I’ve watched it,” said June, general sales manager for a Toyota dealership in Ridgecrest.
Wednesday was in many ways a day for recovery and repopulation, even as some of the Erskine’s rage remained uncontrolled. At 3 p.m., authorities reported the Erskine Fire was 60 percent contained after growing to 46,684 acres.
Throughout the communities of South Lake and Mountain Mesa, dozens of Southern California Edison workers labored to restore power to communities who have been without it for days. Of the estimated 200 power distribution poles damaged by the fire, 138 have been replaced, as have 24 of 30 transmission poles, the Kern County Fire Department reported.
California Water Service lifted a water-boiling order Tuesday night for Squirrel Valley, South Lake, Mountain Mesa and Onyx customers. And county government opened a transition center at Wallace Elementary School at 3240 Erskine Creek Road in Lake Isabella to provide information about available resources to displaced residents.
Such progress may offer little consolation to people like Matt Smith, an Onyx cattle ranch worker whose South Lake home was completely destroyed by the Erskine. Sifting through the ashes Wednesday with his son, he managed to smile and joke despite having had no fire insurance.
“Just wanted to see if we could find any sentimental (items). Because that’s all that’s left,” he said.
Asked how outsiders might be able to help, Smith deflected.
“It’s like, thank you, but help somebody else,” he said, adding that he, his wife and their dogs are now staying at their daughter’s home in Lake Isabella. “I feel very blessed to have friends and family like that.”
An employee of BARC, Rose McLaughlin, spent part of her day taking clients to their homes so they could pick up medicine and other necessities before bringing them back to her personal home in Lake Isabella. The place is temporarily housing four outside couples, as well as three extra horses, four turtles, two dogs and two cats.
McLaughlin kept upbeat about how the community has responded to the fire.
“People have pulled together,” she said. “It shows you what nice people we have, because whatever was needed was there.”
Wofford Heights retiree Carolyn Maldonado, who together with her fiancé, Mike Huddleston, was putting up people including the woman whose Baby Jesus was stolen from her shed, said most of the community has responded similarly.
“Out of the ashes rose good,” said Maldonado, adding that she is offering indefinite housing for displaced residents in part because she has no money to give them. “It’s what God would want us to do.”
One of the area’s few licensed, practicing psychotherapists, Marsinah Ramirez Trujillo, said she is putting together a support group in Mountain Mesa for fire survivors, and that she will donate her time to help people in need of counseling.
She expects people will eventually realize they need what she calls “psychological first aid.” But in the meantime, they must see to more immediate needs.
“Right now, honestly, they’re looking for can openers,” she said.