KERNVILLE — Angel Chaparro, 41, sat in the shade of one of the two big trees outside Kernville Elementary School Saturday eating a hamburger with his family and friends around him.
He’s not going back to his home in Squirrel Valley with his mother, sister and the five children in their clan any time soon.
But he’s thankful. For the firefighters battling the Erskine fire that took his neighbors’ homes and drove him from his. For the Red Cross shelter workers and volunteers who come around every five minutes — almost too often — to check that he’s OK.
He’s thankful for the hamburger in his hand, cooked on site by folks from a local restaurant.
And for a place to stay.
“We understand we could be here a week, a week and a half,” Chaparro said. “The people here are incredible. It’s not the Hilton but at least we’re not on the street.”
On Saturday, the Erskine fire burned more slowly, moving farther away from Lake Isabella along the steep ridgelines south of Weldon and through valleys of scrub brush, sparse grasses and yucca plants.
But gray-yellow smoke shadowed the south end of Isabella Lake and cast a pall over the Kern River Valley.
People whose lives have been upended by the voracious blaze settled in to wait.
Firefighters, helicopters and firefighting planes battled the blaze, mopped up the still-smoking remains of the area the fire consumed and guarded homes and property from a shift of the wind that could send the blaze roaring back in the wrong direction.
At Camp 9, a recreation campground turned fire camp on Sierra Way along the east side of Isabella Lake, Kern County Fire Capt. Nathan Filion and his crew from Station 42 were taking a day of rest after battling the fire for two days straight.
They had been tasked with structure protection in the Kelso Valley on Friday as the wind-whipped fire roared south burning brush, cactus, fences, cars, trucks, a flat-bed trailer and homes.
“The wind has been pushing it hard,” Filion said.
Homes where families had been diligent about reducing burnable fuels around their property were saved. But some homes couldn’t be protected, he said.
So far 150 homes have been destroyed and another 75 structures damaged.
A drive along Kelso Valley Road was a testament to the voracious power of the blaze, and also to what firefighters had been able to save from its appetite.
Blackened hillsides and meadows marked the whole miles-long trek back into the remote valley on a narrow road. Plumes of smoke, pushed south by the wind, grew larger and larger.
Fire vehicles dotted the landscape, parked by homes along the road.
Most of the homes seem to have survived, many of them sitting intact and safe amid an encircling sea of smoking ash and blackened yucca plants.
Power lines sagged along the road, hanging down where poles had been burned out from under them.
COSTS OF THE FIGHT
But the Erskine fire has already cost the Kern River Valley a steep price.
Two people who died in the blaze had not yet been identified by the Kern County Sheriff’s Office Saturday evening.
And the price tag is expected to grow.
Remains were found Saturday on Fiddleneck Street in South Lake — the community hit very hard by the fire that started on Thursday night — but there is no confirmation whether they are human.
Those grim discoveries will be made by rescue and assessment teams that fanned out Saturday to neighborhoods and remote ranches across the burned area of the fire, which covered 35,711 acres of land south and east of Isabella Lake by Saturday evening.
They’re confirming the extent of the damage, notifying property owners and searching for the missing.
“They’re going street by street looking at addresses, getting that information to residents,” Kern County Fire Capt. Tyler Townsend said.
And, even now, the task of rebuilding has begun.
Along Highway 178, south of Isabella Lake, utility crews perched heavy equipment on steep hillsides and used massive cranes to replace the wooden power poles that burned and dropped lines along the route.
An estimated 3,000 Southern California Edison customers remain without power in the area and are expected to be without power for the rest of the weekend.
GLIMMER OF RECOVERY
Kernville sits at the other end of Isabella Lake from the fire and, there, the life of the Kern River Valley went on in a manner that was a little closer to normal Saturday.
Campers clustered along the Upper Kern River and rafting companies were doing good business ferrying visitors down the river’s rapids.
Angel Chaparro watched it all go by from his seat in front of the Red Cross shelter at Kernville Elementary, one of two in the Kern River Valley. The other was at the St. Jude’s Catholic Church in Wofford Heights.
He remembers the fire coming over the ridge into Squirrel Valley. He remembers sending his mother, sister and the children away.
“Twenty minutes later I couldn’t see 20 feet,” he said. “I knew the fire was behind the smoke.”
Jack and Joan Mair, who have known Chaparro and his family for 20 years, sat with them at the shelter Saturday morning.
They fled their home on Kelso Valley Road on Friday.
When the smoke got thick enough that they couldn’t see the nearby mountain known as “Nellie’s Breast,” they grabbed their important papers and drove out to Highway 178.
“Safety’s always first,” Jack said. “Take what you can and pray.”
“He gets upset about things like this,” Joan, 86, said. “I told him, ‘You can replace the house but we can’t replace each other.’”
From neighbors they learned they won’t have to replace the house, either. Some outbuildings burned but their home and garage escaped the blaze.
But Joan had to call a neighbor who lives most of the time in Los Angeles and tell him his home — just across the street from them — was gone.
“Cortez Canyon got wiped out,” Jack Mair said. “and there’s a lot of wonderful homes in Cortez Canyon.”
Chaparro said the whole experience has been tough for the people at the shelter and frustration and anger crept in during update meetings from shelter staff and public safety staff.
“People are understandably upset and they take it out on the authorities,” he said.
Chaparro tries to look at how lucky his family has been.
“At least we have a home to go back to,” he said.