On Friday, one year to the hour after the Erskine Fire started, the Kern Valley community will gather to say thank you to the people who fought the deadly blaze and those who helped rebuild after it was over.
It’s not a celebration, said organizer Cindy Filkosky.
There’s nothing to celebrate about the wind-driven inferno that started near Lake Isabella, destroyed 280 homes, took two lives and scarred thousands of others.
But survivors, she said, want to take a moment from rebuilding to remember.
“The survivors don’t want to be seen as victims,” Filkosky said. “But they wanted to mark the occasion.”
Friday’s event, they decided, would be centered on a spirit of thanks.
The Kern Valley Long Term Recovery Group, a collection of nonprofit organizations and volunteers that have worked to help survivors recover, is organizing the event.
It will begin at 4 p.m. at Mountain Mesa Park in the small east lake community of Mountain Mesa.
The event is free, Filkosky said. Games, activities and other fun will kick off the event, followed at 5 p.m. by dinner and music.
Then, at 6 p.m., the community will offer its thanks to the firefighters, sheriff’s deputies and other emergency personnel who fought the fire and helped people evacuate safely.
And they will also honor the host of community groups, nonprofit aid organizations and individuals who helped survivors and teamed up to rebuild Squirrel Valley, South Lake and the other communities devastated by the Erskine Fire.
Participants include the Red Cross, the United Way, The Salvation Army, The Family Resource Center and The Kern Valley Healthcare District.
County leaders said it’s good to remember what happened and important to prepare for the possibility that it could happen again.
Even now the Highway Fire is burning in the Kern River Canyon between Bakersfield and the Kern River Valley.
Kern County Fire Chief Brian Marshall remembered on Tuesday the voracious appetite of the fire, which roared east along the south side of Isabella Lake covering 11 miles in just hours as the wind launched flaming ash and cinders from ridge line to ridge line.
After the fire, he said, staff tried to program a computer model to emulate the Erskine Fire’s behavior.
The model couldn’t do it, he said.
Marshall said the only thing that stopped the Erskine Fire, which tried to burn back west toward Lake Isabella and Bodfish, was that it burned into the fire scar from the 2008 Piute Fire and ran out of heavy fuel to burn.
For many of the firefighters who battled the blaze, he said, the fight was deeply personal.
“They were in their own back yard. They live and work there,” he said. “The sheer impact of their entire community burning” was huge.
One firefighter, Brian Allen, was helping save his neighbors’ lives while his own home burned.
Supervisor Mick Gleason said the county, just Tuesday, rescinded the declaration of emergency that the county passed nearly a year ago.
He’ll be at Friday’s event and said it’s good to close the door on the past year and acknowledge all the great ways the community has come together.
But there is a lot more work to be done, he said.
And it's important to remember the cost of wildland fires and use that knowledge to prepare for future disasters that come in areas where the wildlands and civilization meet.