LAKE ISABELLA, Calif. – A voracious and deadly wildfire in central California has destroyed 150 homes and the toll may rise, fire officials said Saturday.
The tally rose from 80 homes as firefighters began going through neighborhoods to count houses and mobile homes incinerated by the blaze. Another 75 homes were damaged, authorities told CBS affiliate KBAK in Bakersfield.
The inferno of destruction tore through rural mountain communities near Lake Isabella, about 40 miles northeast of Bakersfield, overwhelming firefighters as home after home went up in flames.
Entire blocks were reduced to rubble, and at least 2,500 homes remained threatened.
“It was my grandparents’ home, I grew up in that house,” Morgan Rivers told CBS News. “It’s not the things inside of it, it’s something you can’t replace.”
Since it began Thursday, the Erskine Fire has swept through more than 35,000 acres — nearly 56 square miles — of parched brush and timber. It moved so quickly that some residents barely had time to escape — and two didn’t.
“Two people who we believe were trying to escape the fire — they had actually gotten out of their home and were apparently overcome with smoke,” Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said.
The names of the victims, described as an elderly couple, were not released. Cadaver dogs were being used to search the rubble of other homes for other possible fatalities.
Weather conditions that drove the fire through small southern Sierra Nevada communities with terrifying speed remained a worry, with low humidity and 30-mph steady winds forecast.
“That’s something we have to keep an eye on. It could spark another disaster,” Kern County fire Engineer Anthony Romero said.
More than 1,100 firefighters were battling the blaze, but Louie Garcia saw no one when the flames closed in on his home.
“The house next door was already burning, it was engulfed,” Garcia told CBS News. “It was just a wall of fire, it was hot, couldn’t hardly breathe, couldn’t hardly see.”
His neighbors came to the rescue, climbing on his roof with garden hoses. Without their help, Garcia said, “Well, I don’t think I’d have a house today.”
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, freeing up money and resources to fight the fire and to clean up in the aftermath. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also authorized the use of funds for firefighting efforts.
Everett Evans, 45, fled Thursday as the fire came down a mountain with a roar toward his South Lake mobile home.
“When you hear a freight train, it’s time to leave. You could hear it, you could see it, you could smell it,” he said.
Evans said he knocked on doors to get neighbors to leave. Evans and his father, son and his son’s girlfriend were in the convoy.
But he has nothing left to come back to. Virtually no homes survived in his neighborhood. A reporter visiting on Saturday found only a burned flag blowing in the wind on a flagpole above the rubble of Evans’ home.
Evans hadn’t been allowed back to the home but said he lost mementos and photos from his former marriage and years in the Marine Corps.
“That’s all memories. You get to keep your life but you lose your memories,” he said.
Shiela McFarland, 67, from Mountain Mesa, left her home three days ago, taking her computer, cellphone, papers and her miniature poodle, Snuggles.
At an evacuation center, she slept on a cot outdoors next to his kennel.
McFarland said she didn’t know whether her home survived, but she was philosophical.
“It doesn’t matter if I’ve lost everything,” she said Saturday. “I’ve got my little dog, my kids and my grandkids. I’ve seen other people in worse shape.”
The fire tore through small communities of houses and mobile homes that surround the lake — actually a reservoir — and the Kern River, a popular spot for fishing and whitewater rafting. The communities are nestled in foothills of the Sierra Nevada, a mountain range that runs hundreds of miles north and south through eastern California.
Scorching heat and tinder-dry conditions across the West have contributed to massive wildfires in the past week that have destroyed properties and sent residents to seek shelter and hope for the best.
Laura Rogers was one of those who thought she’d never see her home or her brother’s home again. Instead, she was lucky to find both standing in a neighborhood of mobile homes that was devastated.
“I was sure this place was gone last night,” Rogers said through tears Friday as she gestured at the destruction around her. “I mean look at this, I can’t believe it. It’s like a scary movie.”
The downspout of her brother’s home was melted on the ground, but the structure was intact.
Dozens of other homes were gone, left in piles of charred sheet metal and cinderblock foundations. Scorched tricycles, air conditioners and TV dishes littered the landscape. Burned-out cars sat on tireless rims and leafless trees poked from barren, blackened dirt.