Updated 10:15 p.m.
A big effort was underway Friday night to evacuate sixty-nine residents of the skilled nursing facility at Kern Valley Hospital.
Hall Ambulance Service, Inc. was working with the county Emergency Medical Services Department and Liberty Ambulance to make it happen, a Hall news release said.
The effort was expected to continue past midnight.
Hall was using a call-back system to bring in 40 paramedics, plus EMTs and critical care nurses. The residents will go to skilled nursing facilties throughout the county that have opened up beds to care for them, Hall reported.
Additionally, nursing staff from San Joaquin Community Hospital and Kern Medical were picked up by Hall and taken to Kern Valley Hospital to accompany ambulatory patients who could go on a bus, the news release said. Kern Regional Transit was helping, also.
Updated 9:25 p.m.
Three firefighters have suffered smoke inhalation injuries, the fire InciWeb website is reporting.
The website notes, “Firefighters are working hard today in very hot and dry conditions and steep terrain.”
Updated 9:22 p.m.
The Pacific Coast Trail is closed from Walker Basin Campground to Jawbone Canyon Road, the fire InciWeb website reports.
Updated 9:15 p.m.
Memorial Hospital in Bakersfield is preparing to accept patients who were evacuated from Kern Valley Hospital.
The hospital reported that 20 skilled nursing patients, accompanied by nursing staff from Kern Valley, are expected to arrive at Memorial at about 11 p.m.
Updated 7:45 p.m.
The American Red Cross of Kern County has opened another shelter for Erskine Fire evacuees. It’s at St. Jude’s Catholic Church, 86 Nellie Dent Drive in Wofford Heights.
The shelter at Kernville Elementary School is still open.
Updated 6:52 p.m.
The Erskine Fire may go down in history as one of the most destructive wildland fires Kern County has ever seen.
And many of its victims are the poorest of the poor in the Kern River Valley, a remote and rural region whose social safety net may be tested as never before as hundreds of residents now face the loss of their homes.
While the fate of many who have lost their homes is still unclear, some help in the firefighting effort is already on its way from the federal government, state Sen. Jean Fuller said Friday evening. Fuller, along with 1st District Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason, visited the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Shelter set up at the elementary school in Kernville.
Seventy-five percent of the firefighting cost will be paid for by the federal government, Fuller said. It's already been approved. And other federal and state assistance may also be forthcoming.
Private assistance from individuals, organizations and businesses has already been arriving in the form of food, water and much-needed ice.
Fuller said fire officials have emphsized that this fire has been especially difficult to track and its behavior has been hard to predict.
Maybe an investigation is appropriate, she said, not to point fingers, but to learn from this experience.
Was the response time in line with expectations? she asked. Was the coordination between agencies well executed?
"This fire is differentfrom all the others we've lived through in the past."
Gleason pointed out that even firefighters lost homes to this difficult fire.
"We have people who have emotional ties to this fire," he said of local firefighters.
The fact that cellphone towers were destroyed, that electricty went down in burn areas, that the wind behaved in atypical ways, and that some local firefighters were called upon to battle fires in other areas -- and that California has experienced a historic multi-year drought -- created something of a perfect firestorm.
"I don't know that anybody could have done a better job," Fuller said.
— Staff writer Steven Mayer
Updated 6:44 p.m.
Kern Valley Hospital is taking precautionary measures and evacuating due to to a water boil notice issued by the state, according to Kern Public Health. The notice was issued due to power outages and low water pressure in the Squirrel Mountain, South Lake and Mountain Mesa areas.
Updated 6:39 p.m.
It’s unknown if the fire was accidental or intentionally set, Youngblood said. Arson investigators are looking into it.
Updated 6:37 p.m.
No estimates as to when evacuations will be lifted. A number of communities, basically all of the south side of Lake Isabella, are threatened, Kern County Fire Capt. Tyler Townsend said.
Updated 6:32 p.m.
Sheriff Donny Youngblood confirmed at press conference there are at least two fatalities. Cadaver dogs will be used as deputies go through the rubble to see if anyone else was killed.
Youngblood said it’s believed the two people who died were trying to escape the fire and had made it out of their home before they were apparently overcome by smoke.
Updated 4:52 p.m.
Staff members at Kern Valley High School are part of the thousands that have been evacuated from the areas surrounding the Erskine Fire and are left without any knowledge if they have a home to come back to because of lack of cell service in the region.
"I don't know. We got evacuated," Kern Valley head football coach Brandon Deckard said from a family member's home in Bakersfield. "We live in Mount Mesa. I don't even know if I lost mine. It's all up in the air."
Kern Valley boys basketball coach Kyle Dooley and his family nearly lost their home. The fire came into Dooley's backyard and destroyed his shed, but the house remains intact and according to @KVBroncs Twitter account, Dooley and his family are "doing good."
— Staff writer Trevor Horn
Updated 4:30 p.m.
Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency for Kern County due to the effects of the Erskine Fire, his office said in a news release.
The release noted the fire has claimed multiple lives, caused the evacuation of thousands of residents, burned thousands of acres and damaged homes and critical infrastructure.
Updated 4:23 p.m.
Updated 2:25 p.m.
There were 80 evacuees when the Red Cross relocated from the Lake Isabella Senior Center to Kernville Elementary School, Jessica Piffero, a Red Cross spokeswoman stationed at the shelter said.
Now, roughly 140 people have evacuated to the Red Cross Shelter at the school, on the north side of the lake, opposite of where the fire is burning.
Outside, families huddle around with their dogs. Inside the auditorium, folks driven from their homes try to find some time for sleep on the green cots assembled in rows.
“It’s very sad,” said Piffero, who grew up in Lake Isabella. “There are no words for how sad it is. I’m just comforted in knowing that we’re here to help these people out.”
But there’s still a possibility that this evacuation shelter might fill up, Piffero said. In that case, the Red Cross has multiple other locations prepared with food, water and other supplies, Piffero said.
Some cars in the parking lot are brimming with essentials, like blankets and pillows.
— Staff writer Harold Pierce
Updated 2:23 p.m.
State and local officials say recent El Nino-related rains contributed substantially to the explosive nature of the Erskine Fire.
The rains led to a larger than normal grass crop that has helped fuel the fire, they say.
"The rain is a blessing and a curse," Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said. He added, "We'll take every drop we can get."
The grass has combined with low humidity, triple-digit temperatures, gusty winds and drought-parched trees to create what has now been designated California's most destructive wildfire this year.
"It's the perfect combination for a large, damaging wildfire," Berlant said.
— Staff writer John Cox
Updated 2:14 p.m.
We assess shelters for sanitation, food safety, ensure clean bedding and blankets, clean water and restroom facilities. We were satisfied with our initial inspection of the shelter at Kernville Elementary.
It was the faces of the people in the shelter that I won't forget. Devastating loss.
— Michelle Corson, county public health spokeswoman, in an email.
Updated 2:11 p.m.
Matt Constantine, the county's top public health officer, is in the Kern River Valley to assess the needs of evacuees at the shelters, said Michelle Corson, spokeswoman for the department.
"The shelter is full," she said at 1:30 p.m. of the Kernville Elementary site she had just toured.
"We're told there's a lack of water in certain areas, but we're just beginning our assessment."
Corson said at least a couple of public health nurses have been dispatched to assist evacuees. Constantine may summon more as part of his assessment, which will involve checking on food and water at the shelters.
The real work for Public Health will come when the fire is extinguished, Corson said. Before residents can return to their homes, the health department will need to evaluate water and septic systems, as well as any potential chemical hazards.
Corson and Constantine arrived at the Kernville shelter around noon Friday. What they saw en route from Bakersfield was harrowing.
"It almost looks like a volcano to me," Corson said. "Driving by the large area of what has been burned, it's quite a sight."
— Staff writer Jennifer Self
Updated 1:43 p.m.
Kern County has won approval of a grant that will greatly reduce its share of the costs to battle the Erskine Fire.
The grant was approved Thursday night in consultation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and California's Office of Emergency Services. It means the federal government will pay for three-quarters of the fire's total costs, which have not yet been calculated.
The approval also means the state of California will have to pay for three-quarters of the 25 percent not covered by the federal government.
Tabulating of costs won't begin until the fire has been fully suppressed, Kern County Fire Battalion Chief Derek Tisinger said. After that, federal, state and local agencies involved in the firefighting effort will meet and discuss how exactly costs will be shared.
— Staff writer John Cox
Updated 12:28 p.m.
Kern County Fire Capt. Michael Nicholas said firefighters are beginning the damage assessment process.
Updated 12:13 p.m.
Kern County firefighters confirmed two people have been killed in the fire.
Updated 11:30 a.m.
Kern County Animal Services Director Nick Cullen said that his officers responded yesterday afternoon as the fire was starting to find people releasing their animals to flee the fire on their own.
"There were already animals being let loose because the area was ablaze," Cullen said. "It was kind of pandemonium."
The department has one officer serving the Kern River Valley and a second officer was immediately dispatched to help.
It quickly became clear that the two officers weren't going to be able to corral all the loose animals and set up sheltering operations.
Cullen said an additional five officers were dispatched to help out and they worked until 3: 30 a.m. to set up an emergency animal shelter for four horses, a number of livestock - mostly goats - and a lot of dogs.
Currently the shelter, first established at the Lake Isabella Senior Center, was moved to Kernville Elementary.
He suggested that people with large animals who need emergency evacuation call the Kern County Animal Services dispatch line at 868-7100.
Small animal owners should bring their pets with them to the shelter.
"For small animals, wherever the Red Cross is, that's where we'll be as well," Cullen said.
— Staff writer James Burger
Updated 11:24 a.m.
National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning.
Updated 11:22 a.m.
The Kern County emergency operations center was activated Thursday night to coordinate sheltering, evacuation and other efforts by county and state agencies.
Kern County Emergency Services Manager Georgianna Armstrong said a precautionary evacuation notice was issued for the community of Lake Isabella just before 11 a.m. Friday.
The community is not immediately threatened, she said, but the notice was intended to prepare residents and emergency personnel so they could move quickly to get residents to safety if the fire got too close to town.
County officials are also looking to expand sheltering operations in the valley.
The Kernville Elementary location was at capacity by 11 a.m. Friday with 127 adults and 18 children sheltering there.
Another site in Wofford Heights is being looked at, Armstrong said, but officials need to verify that is handicapped accessible before opening it.
Emergency responders, she said, are still in the first flurry of response to the Erskine blaze.
"It's still in a scramble," Armstrong said.
She urged residents to register for the ReadyKern system which shoots updates and alerts - including evacuation notices - directly to citizens' email and cellphones. The registration link is available under the "education" tab on the kerncountyfire.org website.
Armstrong said she understand's people want to help but she urged them not to grab clothes, blankets and other "stuff" and try to get them to people at the fire.
Currently it creates a logistical headache for emergency officials.
People can take donations to Goodwill and designate it for the Erskine fire or they can make cash donations to the Red Cross, Armstrong said.
"Don't drop of stuff. Please don't drop off stuff," she said.
She also had some advice for people are looking for their loved ones who might have been displaced by the fire.
Red Cross has a website - www.safeandwell.org - that is designed to help people connect with friends and family members who have been displaced by the blaze.
"You can go on that website and declare yourself as safe and well or go on there and search for other people who have declared themselves safe and well," Armstrong said.
— Staff writer James Burger
Updated at 11:04 a.m.
At the Lake Isabella Visitors Center, Ken Kluthe watched as helicopters swallowed up hundreds of gallons of water from the lake to fight back the flames.
He doesn’t live in the Erksine Creek area, but has friends who do.
His friend, who evacuated his property, called him up when the fire began growing into the 19,000-acre behemoth it’s become. Hummel had left his truck in his friend’s driveway.
“I don’t know if you’re going to have a truck anymore,” Hummel said his friend told him. At that point, he was more concerned about his friend’s home.
— Staff writer Harold Pierce
Updated at 10:59 a.m.
The Erskine Fire seen from Lake Isabella.
Updated at 10:48 a.m.
When Steve Hummel came from Palm Springs to vacation at Lake Isabella this weekend, he didn’t expect this. When he arrived, the flames hadn’t yet touched over the top of the hillside to the east of the lake, then as the night wore on, and gusty winds picked up, Hummel said he watched the blaze skip over a fire retardant line and consume the hillside.
“This is the worst fire I’ve ever seen” said Hummel, whose vacation home came dangerously close to becoming a casualty during the Wofford Fire last year.
Fires on that hillside have since been battled, leaving charred remains and smolder from the flames still in view.
— Staff writer Harold Pierce
Updated at 10:37 a.m.
The Erskine Fire as seen from a Shell Station off the highway near Lake Isabella
Updated 10:37 a.m.
There are currently 600 firefighters on scene, with several hundred more en route.
Residents in the Lake Isabella and Erskine Creek area are asked to prepare for possible evacuation.
Updated 10:22 a.m.
The Erskine Fire is now estimated to have grown to 19,034 acres, according to the InciWeb page.
Updated 10:04 a.m.
Caltrans has announced the full closure of Highway 178 near Bodfish/Lake Isabella will continue. Only media and hospital employees with identification will be allowed through road blocks.
Updated 9:41 a.m.
Dozens of people are posting about the devastation caused by the Erskine Fire on the Kern County Fire Department Facebook page. Following is a sampling:
• “Those relentless winds! Powerful images. Heartbreaking to see those homes burn....Praying for everyone involved.” — Lauren Blake
• “A friend of mine lost her house in Squirrel Valley and my brother lost his in South Lake.” — Rikki Buxton
• “Goat Ranch Road was mostly on fire last night.” — Sabrina Mertz Shaw
• “I’m so thankful my grandma was evacuated just in time.” — Crystal Flores
Updated 9:09 a.m.
The American Red Cross Central Valley Region announced this morning it has activated its Safe & Well site to connect loved ones affected by the Erskine Fire. To either register yourself as “safe and well,” or to search for a loved one, go to https://safeandwell.communityos.org/cms/index.php.
Updated 9:02 a.m.
Heat, steep, rugged terrain and winds of 20 mph have hampered firefighting efforts, according to the InciWeb page on the Erskine Fire. Today there will be six air tankers and seven helicopters fighting the fire, with additional resources en route.
Highway 178 is closed at Highway 155 and Sierra Way, and evacuations have been ordered in the following communities: Bella Vista, South Fork, Weldon, Onyx, Lakeland Estates, Mountain Mesa, South Lake, Squirrel Valley and Yankee Canyon.
Kernville Elementary School is the primary shelter for evacuees. About 125 evacuees are currently at the shelter.
Update at 8:54 a.m.
Kern County Fire Chief Brian Marshall said at a press conference Friday morning fire crews won’t know for sure exactly how many structures have been destroyed until damage assessment teams reached the burned areas. He said weather conditions today are expected to be much the same as yesterday, meaning the blaze will continue to grow and more homes will be threatened.
Marshall said local fire crews, as well as resources arriving from around the state, are engaged in “a firefight of epic proportions.” The fire traveled more than 11 miles in 13 hours.
Update at 8 a.m.
A raging wildfire near lake Isabella has consumed an estimated 8,000 acres and burned 100 structures, Kern County Fire Captain Mike Nicholas said Friday morning.
The fire is currently burning south of Highway 178 and north of Erskine Creek Road. It’s immediate cause is not yet known.
Currently more than 350 firefighters are on scene, with several hundreds more in route, according to Nicholas.
Find information on the incident overview here.
Updated at 8 a.m.
Interview from Kern County Fire Captain Mike Nicolaus at 8:00 a.m.