Some Evacuations Lifted in Deadly Erskine Fire, Now 40 Percent Contained

Some residents will be allowed to return home Monday after a huge wildfire killed two people and destroyed 250 homes as it tore through mountain communities in Kern County, officials said.

Evacuations were lifted at noon for communities least affected by flames in the so-called Erskine Fire, which has charred more than 70 square miles northeast of Bakersfield. The blaze was 40 percent contained.

Residents living in the ares of Yankee Canyon and Mountain Mesa were alloed to return home but were advised no electrical power was available, authorities said. Those living east of South Lake along Hwy 178, Larson Tract, Navajo, Hillview Acres, Bella Vista, Weldon, can also return to their homes.

Houses could be vulnerable if winds blow the fire back toward some of the communities in the popular recreation area, Fire Chief Brian Marshall said.

"There's still more threats out there," Marshall said. "This is going to go down as the most destructive wildfire in Kern County history."

Cadaver dogs searched through the rubble of devastated neighborhoods for more possible casualties, though remains found over the weekend were identified as an animal, Kern County sheriff's spokesman Ray Pruitt said.

The fire began Thursday and quickly exploded in dry brush and bore down on small communities of houses and mobile homes that surround Lake Isabella, a dammed section of the scenic Kern River popular for fishing, whitewater rafting and other outdoor activities.

Terrifying flames arrived with little warning and residents, many elderly, had to flee amid heavy smoke. "People were escaping barely within an inch of their lives," Marshall said.

The bodies of an elderly couple, apparently overcome by smoke, were found Friday. Their names have not been released.

In addition to the destroyed homes, another 75 were damaged. Evacuations were still in place Monday for the communities of Squirrel Valley and South Lake, authorities said. 

"Most people here, this is all they had," said Daniel O'Brien, 53, who lost two rental mobile homes. "You have these moments where you just want to break down crying and fall apart."

The fire was the most damaging blaze in California, but it is just one of many that have burned large swaths of the arid West during hot weather.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency to free up funds for firefighting and eventual cleanup. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also authorized funds for firefighting efforts.

Shelters were set up by the American Red Cross of Kern County at St. Jude's Catholic Church and Kernville Elementary School. Highway 178 was reopened, however some reads of the highway remained closed.  

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