As firefighters battled to gain control of the deadly Erskine Fire Sunday, desperation overcame some residents.
Seventy-two-year-old Joe Palme had waited as long as he could to evacuate his Squirrel Valley home on Thursday as flames roared down the mountain.
He learned Saturday the home he’d built himself and had lived in with his wife, Michelle, for 30 years was gone.
Sunday morning, he was determined to get back to his property. No matter what.
The situation got ugly fast.
Palme, with Michelle and their two dogs in the car, blew past a CHP checkpoint on Highway 178 and refused to stop until he was in the couple’s driveway.
CHP officer Kelley Walker yelled at Palme to put up his hands but an enraged Palme refused.
Michelle Palme tried to explain that her husband’s medication for anxiety, heart problems and shaking had burned up in the fire and they couldn’t get a refill as the pharmacy in Mountain Mesa was closed for lack of electricity.
She begged both men to be calm.
At one point Walker pulled his gun.
Regardless, Palme walked away. Then he came back toward his car and yelled at Walker to “put that f***ing gun away” and get off his property. “I know my constitutional rights!”
Walker apparently re-holstered his weapon and ordered Palme to comply. Palme, an Air Force veteran, refused and continued to yell that he had a right to access his own property.
He also yelled for the media to stay and watch what was happening to him, take pictures and tell his story.
At one point, Palme appeared to try and re-enter his vehicle.
That’s when Walker grabbed him. They exchanged punches then fell, grappling on the ground until two Kern County Sheriff’s Deputies arrived and helped Walker handcuff Palme.
Palme was taken to KMC for observation and was expected to be booked on failure to stop and resisting arrest, CHP Officer Richard Pierce said.
“It’s hard because we sympathize with what these people are going through,” Pierce said. “But this is still a dangerous situation up here and it’s our responsibility to maintain the safety for residents and emergency workers who are still in the process of working on power lines and fighting the fire.”
Officers ordered Michelle to leave as well, but she had left her keys in the car and one of her dogs pushed the lock button.
Firefighters tried several times to unlock the vehicle using slim jims. It’s unclear if they finally had to bust out a window.
A posting about the incident on Facebook brought an outpouring of sympathy for Palme and frustration by area residents being kept from their homes.
“My wife kept me from doing the same exact thing on Friday,” wrote Vince Rush.
“Poor guy, I can't blame him one bit....” added Leigh Anne Klingler.
While the Erskine Fire was devastating, it was also fickle.
Though the Palmes” home was nothing but rubble, their neighbors, Bill and Cookie Coughran had only moderate damage, mostly to vehicles in their yard.
“God had his hand on this house,” Bill Coughran said.
That and their gardener comes every Thursday and regularly blows all the leaves and debris away from the house.
“I think I’ll give him a nice raise.”
This isn’t the first time the Coughrans have been up close and personal with fire in the area. Back in 1998, Bill Coughran was with the Kern County Fire Department and helped lead the fight against the Erskine Creek fire, which came up the ridge to Squirrel Valley.
“But we beat it back.”
Not this time.
High, erratic winds pushed the fire first one direction, then another, said South Lake resident Terra Lehman, as she rested with her dog, T.J., at the Kernville Elementary School, which served as a shelter/information center/resource supply stop.
She and friend Garyallen Jenngins, 24, didn’t know the fire was on them until a nearby propane tank exploded and shattered their window.
When they looked outside, it was already awful.
“It was so close, I could see the flames,” the 20-year-old Lehman said. “Every time I close my eyes, I can still see it.”
She and her mother and several others got out right then.
Others who stayed longer said the fire initially skipped her trailer.
“Then it turned back and got our house.”
Their trailer was on Wildmint, one of a dozen streets in South Lake that are lined with nothing more than crumpled cars and a few shredded walls.
Unlike Squirrel Valley where homes are spread apart, South Lake was a tightly packed community of mobile homes.
The fire chewed through them like Pez candies.
“There were 200 homes up here,” Paul Andrades said as he and long-time companion Dortha Ellison viewed the wreckage that was once Andrades’ home. “I helped build this tract.”
Andrades, 74, has lived in that South Lake trailer since 1952.
He left it on Thursday night to help make sure Ellison’s Mountain Mesa home was OK.
When he tried to go home later that night, firefighters kept him out. It wasn’t until Friday morning he saw how little the Erskine Fire had left.
“We just came back today because he wanted to get pictures,” Ellison said on Sunday.
He most likely won’t rebuild, Ellison said. They’ll either stay in the Mountain Mesa house or get a motorhome and travel.
“You’ve been telling me for years to get rid of all this s*** and lets go see the world,” Andrades told Ellison. “Well, all I’ve got now is what I’ve got on.”
Joking aside, he said he was amazed and grateful for the generosity of friends and strangers who donated clothing and other resources that he had loaded into the back of the couple’s small car.
“I never knew I had so many friends.”