The Erskine Fire

It was shortly after 4:00 p.m. on June 23 when I heard my neighbor gasping Oh no! Oh my God!

Smoke as seen from just in front of my brother's house in Lake Isabella.

I stopped what I was working on to see what was going on outside and saw smoke coming from the area of my brother's house, who lived around the corner from me at the top of the street. I called to see if anyone was home and began running up there when nobody answered. As I came around the corner and saw things from a different angle, I was relieved a little to see that it was behind his house, but continued to the top of the street to check on the animals and see how much of a threat it was. Fortunately, his house was upwind and downhill from the blaze.

By the time that I was finished checking on my brother's house and taking a few photos, Lake Isabella was without power and cell service. At the time, this wasn't too much of a problem, but it would soon lead to problems that remain after the smoke has cleared. I checked around for a place to plug in my laptop, ideally with Wi-Fi, so that I could find and share whatever information I could find. I found no such luck that day.

It wasn't until later that evening that I really knew anything of the extent of the fire. I had heard that Mt. Mesa, where my parents and another brother live, was being evacuated. Knowing that fires are slow going downhill, I thought that the evacuation order was entirely precautionary and that the flames would be fairly distant from homes. My mom had left work in Ridgecrest early when she found out about the fire. My dad had called her and said that the fire was getting close. He and both of my brothers were at the house preparing to evacuate. Later, when my mom was driving through Mt. Mesa, all that she could see was smoke. She attempted to drive up but was turned around by a firetruck racing down the street signaling everyone to get out of there. I had returned to my brother's house because he should have been off work by that time and I wanted to know what it was like from the other side of the mountains. He wasn't there.

Photos that my younger brother took with his phone while fighting off the fire, trying to save houses in my parent's neighborhood.

I returned to my house again when I heard from my sister-in-law that my mom was looking for me. I arrived just as she was pulling up, and she was frantic. She had spoken with my older brother who lives in Mt. Mesa and had gone up to check on my dad. He had left to be with his wife and daughters, and my dad and younger brother were supposed to be leaving as soon as they could. When my mom arrived in Lake Isabella to find that my dad and younger brother were not there, she assumed the worst. And who could blame here? From what she had seen of the area, she believed that there was nothing left. My dad is what some might call brave and others would consider foolish or stubborn, and everyone knew he would want to stay and defend his home, despite his physical limitations. He had, after all, spent years as a firefighter and the house was one of very few things he had not lost in the last decade. And there was no way that my younger brother was going to leave him alone.

The Erskine Fire at night, as seen from within the evacuated area of Squirrel Valley.

This is where loss of cell phone service became a huge problem. Had any of us been able to reach my dad or brother, we would have known that they were fine and that the smoke seen was mostly burning weeds. But we couldn't, and so I had to convince my mom that they were safe to calm her down, despite being almost certain that my dad and brother had died. It wasn't until almost midnight that we made it to Kernville and met up with my older brother and were able to make use of his barely working phone to call my dad. My dad sounded like he had been through hell. I couldn't hear the conversation so well, but it seemed as though they were crying at the sound of the other's voice.The evening was over and we were coming into the early hours of the next day. My mom was still unable to return home and we still thought that Mt. Mesa and Squirrel Valley were almost completely destroyed. She stayed with my younger brother, who still had the fire burning just behind his house. I doubt that any of us really slept that night, but I was woken up the next morning with the news that I was being evacuated. I ran outside to check on the status of the fire, which had not progressed in my direction at all, but there was concern about the rising wind speed. We all gathered at my brother's house to bring their pets and to cover the propane tank with a wet tarp. After doing this, we left to see what remained on the other side of Cook Peak.

I'm not that sure how we made it past the road blocks, but we did. On the nine mile drive over there, the destruction the fire had caused began to somewhat sink in. Thinking back now, it was clearly mostly grass and brush that had burned, but the sight of the top of a burning power pole (or, more precisely quarter of the pole) suspended by the lines and drifting in the wind had a post-apocalyptic feel that reconfirmed my fears of what I was about to see. These concerns only lasted until we came around the last corner before Mt. Mesa. It was immediately clear that things were mostly but not entirely fine.

The drive from Mt. Mesa up into Squirrel Valley served as a final reminder that, despite the fire having mostly passed by rather than gone through the occupied area, not everything was spared. Just a half mile from my parents' house the road was blocked off and there was a coroner's vehicle parked outside of a burned down house with two vehicles parked outside. My mom and younger brother knew this elderly couple who were not able to escape.

After we were let though, it wasn't long before we made it to the top of the hill, turned the last corner, and were driving up the street seeing the house for the first time. It was apparent that some dead lawns had caught fire from embers that had been caught in the wind, but there were no further signs of destruction aside from that and the very potent smell of smoke in the air. I walked inside to see my dad and brother sitting in the living room with all valuables and necessities sitting out and ready in case the fire picked back up. We talked for a few moments and I soon wanted to see how the rest of the neighborhood had fared.

The remains that I saw of a neighbor's house. The former occupants were friends of mine and I had been hired by the owner to clean up after the tenants before them.
I went with my brother to see what was behind the house. We crawled through a hole that my dad had put in the fence with a sledgehammer the night before while protecting the homes of his neighbors. The neighbor immediately behind had been into carpentry, and a lot of the wood that he had worked with was lost. The fire also burned dangerously close to his propane tank. My brother told me that there were so many propane tanks exploding throughout the night that the sounds of it had become almost mundane. He also told me of a nearby garage or shed that contained a lot of ammunition that was going off for about three hours overnight.

The house across was not so lucky. What's strange is that I do not remember seeing any burned grass or trees nearby, and I thought that the roof was metal and would have defended against the embers and flames pretty well. Instead, the place was completely destroyed aside from some half melted recycling outside. There were puddles of melted tin that had dripped off of the roof as the house burned. Part of the metal frame had become so hot that it folded over while the rest remained upright.

After a lap around the block, we returned to the house and I was asked to eat any of the food that was in the fridge that had not spoiled yet. The power had been off for almost a day by that point and there was no question that they would be without power for at least several more days. Fortunately, they had canned food and a few dozen bottles of water, but there was nothing that could be done about the inability to flush the toilets for the time. They were later able to have several gallons of water that had been determined unfit for drinking up, and they used that to refill the toilets after flushing.

We made several trips around the surrounding streets for the next few hours to see which houses were still standing, both to let friends know if they had lost their home and to find out which places I remembered from my childhood were nothing more than memories. Thankfully, I did not have to report any bad news to anyone, and it felt good to relieve the worry of those few people. A few times during these trips we came across a grass fire that was starting up again. Sometimes we would hurry to tell the nearby firefighters and I got out of the car to put it out myself. Even though the main blaze had passed by, the threat was still very real. One neighbors back yard had some low weeds that had ignited the previous night and I saw smoke starting to come up again, so I went over and put it out as best as I could with a shovel and some dirt (since there was no water). An hour or so later, it had burned down the rest of her back yard and took a fence with it before firefighters arrived to put it out properly.

What remains of South Lake, where I spent most of my childhood.

Before the day was over, we went to see how South Lake had fared. I had heard that it was worse than Mt. Mesa and Squirrel Valley, but didn't expect anything too bad considering how exaggerated stories of my parents' neighborhood had been. I was very, very wrong! South Lake was destroyed by the blocks rather than individual house. Past a certain point, there was almost nothing left standing. Having lived there and even having spent my early childhood nearby, I had a lot of memories and knew a lot of people who lived there.

In total, the Erskine Fire burned 48,019 acres, destroy 285 homes, and took the lives of two people. Many, if not most of the homes lost either did not have insurance or were rentals. Pets were lost. South Lake in particular is likely to never be restored, and the few houses that remain there are standing alone in what used to be a small community. I personally know of at least 20 who are now homeless, but I decided to stop counting, and that figure comes from before the evacuation was lifted and people were allowed to return to see if their homes were still there.

And yet, although I know that I should be experiencing grief, I feel guilty. Not because I had anything to do with what happened to them and not because of survivor's guilt. I feel guilty for doing anything that resembles complaining when I know so many people who experienced the same event with so much greater consequences. One woman I used to work with years ago lost her job when McDonalds closed about a month ago, and she now has no home for her husband and five children. No one in my family even has any damage worth mentioning. Why do I not feel extremely fortunate? Maybe what little response I have to all of this is also partly due to being required to shut my fears down for the sake of others. I'm a little bit afraid that the effect will wear off soon and I'll suddenly be confronted with how much loss so many of my friends have been through. I think I feel it starting sometimes.