There’s no insurance check coming to South Lake resident Matt Smith, whose home of 25 years burned in the Erskine Fire — because it wasn’t insured. But some resources, including money, are available to residents with no home insurance.
Smith said last week he wants to rebuild in the community where he raised his children, southeast of Isabella Lake, regardless because he likes where he lives.
“This is my place. I’m getting too damn old to move,” Smith said. “There’s too many memories to just up and move.”
California’s most destructive wildfire of the year so far, the Erskine Fire, had burned 47,864 acres as of Friday and was 80 percent contained. It had destroyed an AT&T microwave cell hub and 285 homes in Kern and damaged 12 others, although Mick Gleason, chairman of the Kern County Board of Supervisors, warned those numbers may rise slightly as damage continues to be tallied.
Hit hardest in the 75 square miles of Kern County that were scorched were two communities near Isabella Lake: Squirrel Valley to the south, and South Lake to the southeast.
Kern officials are still finalizing their numbers but Greg Fenton, the county’s director of building and development, said late Thursday that South Lake lost more residences by far.
He estimated the community, which is home to large numbers of retirees and veterans, lost nearly 220 residential structures. Around 50 are believed to have been wood-framed buildings, Fenton said, but most of the rest are thought to have been mobile homes.
East of South Lake on South Kelso Valley Road, he said about a half-dozen homes burned.
In Squirrel Valley, Fenton estimated 42 to 45 homes burned, many of them mobile homes.
Mountain Mesa, which is north of Squirrel Valley and closer to Isabella Lake, lost just one house, and another burned between Mountain Mesa and Squirrel Valley south of Highway 178.
It’s unclear, though, exactly how many people the Erskine Fire has left homeless.
FIRE WAS SWIFT, DEVASTATING
“It was a monster. I could visibly see the fire line advancing. I found myself thinking of Vietnam,” said Father Bob Woods, vicar at St. Sherrian Episcopal Church in Kernville and a U.S. Army veteran.
Woods talked his way past law enforcement into South Lake on Thursday night as the fire closed in to check on disabled veteran Barry Downey, whose mobile home was near Fiddleneck Street and Deerbrush Avenue.
He found him at James Sierra Gateway Market. But Downey, who was wounded seven times in combat in Vietnam, had lost everything in the fire, including his Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals, his mobile home and his cell phone.
And, like many others, Woods said Downey didn’t have home insurance.
“I can tell you, because I know enough people, that in the South Lake and Squirrel Valley areas I would say less than 50 percent had home insurance. There were so many retired, just on Social Security or disability. It’s a choice between toothpaste and insurance kind of thing,” Woods added.
Gleason agreed, and said he considers the blaze to be Kern’s most devastating wildfire ever.
“All I know is many, many of the people I talked to in the past week have lost everything and they have no insurance. Their situations are particularly painful and will require some special help we’re trying to muster,” said the supervisor, whose 1st District includes the Kern River Valley.
Jessica Piffero, regional communications director for the American Red Cross, lives in Fresno but is from Bakersfield and was overcome driving into the Kern River Valley.
“I cried on the way up. I was watching the hillsides smoulder and you could see the fire retardant line,” Piffero said.
Red Cross volunteers have come to Kern from as far away as Florida and Maine — some of them veteran responders who have helped victims of Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. A bad fire season was somewhat expected for Kern in the fifth year of historic state drought but, Piffero said, the Erskine fire still “surprised everybody.”
HELP STILL PENDING FOR UNINSURED
Insurance companies like State Farm and Farmers Insurance have sent representatives to the Kern River Valley, where they have met displaced residents at evacuation and transition centers. As of Thursday, Farmers spokeswoman Carrie Bonney said her company had received around 250 claims, all but about 10 of which are for damage to residential properties.
“We’re handling them as fast as we can. We know this is a really stressful time, so we want to help them get what they need,” Bonney said, cautioning residents to “never be afraid to ask questions and know what’s going on.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency may be a source of aid for homeowners, but it hasn’t gotten involved on that level yet.
The County of Kern is compiling information on the extent of fire devastation, including exact numbers of buildings destroyed, damage to infrastructure and numbers of residents displaced, to see if it meets the criteria for help from FEMA.
Only the American Red Cross is confirmed to have financial assistance available to the uninsured.
Piffero said the amount victims may receive depends “on a lot of variables,” including their level of damage, their needs and the number of people affected.
“It’s not going to be enough to rebuild, but it will be enough to fill the gap between now and when they can find a more immediate housing solution,” she said.
Sheryl Chalupa, CEO of the Goodwill Industries of South Central California, said Goodwill issued $2,500 in $10 vouchers last week through the Red Cross, good for items from its thrift stores, and more will be coming.
Goodwill began working closely with the County of Kern to process donations and provide logistical support during natural disasters, after contributions to Hurricane Katrina victims in 2005 famously never reached their destination.
It has sent trucks, racking, hangers and volunteers to the Kern River Valley, Chalupa said, and last week sent two truckloads of essentials purchased at Costco — everything from papers towels to baby wipes to new underwear and diapers.
“We all have friends and colleagues who live in the affected area and we just want to help,” Chalupa said.
Responses from other Kern nonprofits include:
• The United Way of Kern County is collecting money for county employees impacted by the fire, at uwkern.org.
• A Presbyterian disaster assessment team will be in Kern through Sunday, working with the Presbytery of San Joaquin to assess what fire victims need in recovery — everything from help rebuilding homes to counseling.
• The 22-member congregation of St. Sherrian Episcopal in Kernville has collected donations for fire victims, and helped three members find housing on June 23, after flames burned through their communities.
COUNTY RESPONSE CONTINUES
At least five agencies including the City of Bakersfield and the County of Kern have helped fight the Erskine Fire, and Kern officials countywide continue a coordinated response to the disaster.
Perhaps most significantly, Kern’s Public Health Services Department is partnering with the State of California and other agencies to offer residents a free hazardous materials removal and debris cleanup assistance program — and is, in fact, urging residents not to mount clean-ups on their own.
That’s because debris and ash from the fire may contain lead, asbestos and other toxic substances.
Instead, by signing a “right-of-entry” form, residents can qualify to have their properties cleaned up by workers contracted and managed by the county and state. More information is available at www.kernpublichealth.com.
A Local Assistance Center opened Friday at Woodrow W. Wallace Middle School, 3240 Erskine Creek Road, in Lake Isabella. It offers information on how to replace lost records and apply for assistance, plus access to state and county agencies including the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Insurance, and the Employment Development Department.
And, at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, county officials will hold a meeting at Wallace to educate residents on their free debris and hazardous materials cleanup program, which is paid for by the state.
“That’s all done free of charge, regardless of whether you have insurance or not,” said Matt Constantine, Kern’s public health services director. “They’ll actually sift through debris for them and try to identify any of those lost possessions.”
The county also has a call center open at 873-2660, with information on services and making donations. Find a list of donation sites where items are available at kerncountyfire.org.
A California Water Service Co. official said last week water company facilities lost electricity in the fire, but have powered back up and lifted “boil water” notices.
But Constantine cautioned some of the up to 32 other water systems in the area that are regulated by the state may still have “boil water” notices in place.
He said about 218 water wells were affected by the fire, whether losing electrical power or being burned so severely they are now open and present a falling hazard. Twelve smaller water systems may also have been affected by the fire, and the status of an additional 43 smaller water systems remains unknown.
A representative of Southern California Edison said Friday about 100 customers remained without power in Mountain Mesa and Squirrel Valley, but their power was due to be restored sometime this weekend.
Said Gleason: “It was a horrible event, but we’re also seeing the best that human nature can offer.”
The Californian’s John Cox contributed to this report.