U.S. Army veteran and Kern River Valley resident Andrew Jackson was no stranger to a firefight when massive flames from the Erskine Fire crested the hill behind his South Lake home three years ago.

But even three deployments to combat — once to Iraq, twice to Afghanistan — decorations for service and valor, and years in a warrior transition unit, couldn't fully prepare Jackson for this one-sided battle in his own neighborhood.

Like a Blitzkrieg, or lightning attack, minutes after cresting the hills the wildfire overran Jackson's neighborhood, leaving most of it a charred bed of debris and ashes.

By the time it was contained on July 11, 2016, the inferno had killed two people, burned 48,000 acres, destroyed more than 300 buildings, and left many homeless.

Some who survived the fire still feel a sense of panic when they hear a siren. Others moved away from the arid valley, never to return.

"It should be known there was more lost than just homes and material objects," Jackson, now 31, said three years after the fire. "Lives were changed that day."

Jackson was working at James Sierra Gateway, close to the triplex on Goat Ranch Road where he and his fiancée, now his wife, Vikki Jackson, lived.

After work, they packed their bags on the chance that there might be a mandatory evacuation. Then the couple went grocery shopping. At about 5:30 p.m. all shoppers were told to leave the store.

"On our way home, the smoke became ridiculously thick. Ashes were falling from the sky," Jackson remembered.

The sky took on a dark orange color, and when the fire crested the hill behind their home, it started coming at them fast.

"Everyone waited until the last minute," he recalled. "It didn't seem like a big deal until it was."

Vehicles were gridlocked trying to get out. The flames were huge. It was hard to breathe.

Many escaping the fire pulled into a turnout on the highway which provided a vista of their neighborhood from a safe distance.

"We could see houses burning. Everyone was crying," Jackson said. "Some people didn't have anything to go back to."

Not just ashes, but glowing cinders were falling. Phone communication went out for some.

"It was surreal," Jackson said. "The fire was not in South Lake. Then it was."

Georgiana Armstrong, who heads up the Kern County Office of Emergency Services, said the Erskine Fire is the kind of event that is never forgotten by those who experienced it.

"People were running for their lives," she said. "There were people who had to leave their animals behind."

The three-year anniversary brings old emotions to the surface. But Armstrong doesn't have an easy way to measure how well the lake communities have recovered.

But there were many bright lights that illuminated the darkness: Individual volunteers, nonprofit organizations from inside and outside the region, neighbors helping neighbors, and yes, government, all worked to solve problems and assist those in need.

FEMA manufactured housing units, normally intended as temporary emergency housing, almost miraculously became part of the mix. South Lake, all but flattened by the fire, desperately needed some permanent housing.

Armstrong said a "unique opportunity" presented itself, and through a labyrinth of multi-agency cooperation, volunteer efforts and luck, 27 white mobile homes originally intended as temporary housing for victims of another disaster were delivered to the devastated neighborhood.

"FEMA transferred ownership to the state, and the state transferred ownership to the county," she said.

With help from the passionate volunteer community in the Kern River Valley, several county departments working in tandem, the federal Bureau of Land Management and others, 27 new homes were made available to those who needed them most.

But of course it wasn't a perfect solution.

Many residents who didn't have insurance or couldn't rebuild on their own had to give up their aspirations of home ownership.

Kathi Wright, now 66, lived at 8700 Deerbrush Ave. in South Lake. She had lived in the neighborhood for 20 years when the Erskine Fire struck, and had paid off her house five years before.

But Wright made a fateful gamble in hopes of improving her situation as she approached retirement.

"I dropped my homeowners insurance in an attempt to prepare myself for my upcoming retirement by purchasing things for the comfort, financial sustainability, and enjoyment of my golden years," she said in a series of text messages from Oregon.

When the fire struck, she was en route to Oregon, helping her daughter and son-in-law move their young family.

The next morning, they awoke to the news that a destructive wildfire — unlike the fires that burned in the area every summer — had leveled most of her neighborhood, including her own home.

"I was not there as the fire burned. I am so grateful for that," Wright said. "I am strong and independent but my nightmares as a child were always about fire." 

Wright lost everything. She never found her two dogs. And looters, she said, even combed through the ashes of burned homes.

"It is disgusting that anyone would help themselves to what could be sifted through," she said of those who would try to profit from the tragedy.

"I live in Oregon now," Wright said. "I love my new life and am happy to have escaped Kern County. But I feel like Swiss cheese — my heart and soul are full of holes, having lost my history, my photos, my family antiques, my animals."

Dorthy Lynn Altenhofel said Mountain Mesa, west of South Lake, was somehow spared the flames, but not the mental toll the fire left.

Weaver's trailer park was under mandatory evacuation, she said, yet not one officer or firefighter stopped to say that or drove through to say it over a loudspeaker.

"That fire burned damn near to our doorsteps," she said. "I had a big tub of water right by my trailer door just in case I had to dip my three dogs so I could make a run for the lake.

"I saw dogs running down the side of (Highway) 178 still smoldering, screaming in pain."

She remembers Erskine as "eight days of hell."

FIRE AND FLAGS

One bright spot for the Jacksons came when they found out a team of Kern County firefighters had saved Andrew Jackson's flag just as it was beginning to burn as it flew from his front porch.

Jackson had carried the flag to his overseas deployments, and it meant a lot to him.

The fire crew flew the flag from the back of their engine for days before returning the flag to Jackson after they located him.

When he told the fire crew the back story, they were even more elated to have been able to return it to such a deserving veteran.

And to know it had been flying on the back of their truck — well it just seemed fitting.

"That's the flag I took with me to Afghanistan," he said.

Andrew and Vikki Jackson left the devastation of South Lake. They moved to Lake Isabella where Andrew now works as a gunsmith and a store manager at Local Gun Supply, a firearms dealer. The black belt also teaches Karate in the evening. Vikki is an office manager at a local business.

And while they didn't lose a house in the inferno, the couple are still recovering from the impact of the Erskine Fire.

Probably the most tragic loss of all for the Jacksons occurred about a week after returning to their scorched neighborhood, when Vikki Jackson suffered a miscarriage about three months into her pregnancy.

The cause was presumed to be inhalation of smoke and debris coupled with the stress and trauma of the fire. The couple say they were devastated by the loss of their unborn child.

So much loss. So many stories. Three years have passed and only one thing seems crystal clear:

The Erskine Fire still burns.

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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