LAKE ISABELLA — A ravenous and deadly wildfire in central California has burned 200 homes, many belonging to retirees on fixed incomes with few other possessions.
“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 breakdown crying and fall apart.”
The 58-square-mile fire has claimed at least two lives and officials warned the death toll may rise. Cadaver dogs were being brought in Sunday to search for remains.
Kern County Fire Department operations chief Joe Reyes said firefighters had contained significant swaths of the fire’s northern and eastern edges, but that work remained in securing the southern side of the blaze. Crews were moving in from both sides to connect in the middle and establish a perimeter.
Firefighters are hoping to take advantage of lighter winds, though a dry air mass over the area will continue to bring high temperatures and low humidity.
Retardant was being spread over one section south of the fire in case it moves further down.
“The hope is we never have to use it,” Reyes said. “But hope’s not a plan.”
Firefighters were aiming to have the blaze fully contained by Thursday.
A total of about 1,700 firefighters are battling the blaze and combing through debris for hotspots.
On Saturday, firefighters found what appeared to be a set of human remains further up the street from O’Brien’s two rental homes. The remains were so badly burned forensic investigators will have to determine whether they belong to a person or animal, Kern County Sheriff’s spokesman Ray Pruitt said.
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, fire officials said.
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. Seventy-five homes were damaged.
Scorching heat and tinder-dry conditions across the West have contributed to massive wildfires in the past week that have destroyed properties and forced residents to seek shelter.
Since it began Thursday, the fire has swept through 36,810 acres of parched brush and timber. It moved so quickly that some residents barely had time to escape — and two didn’t.
An elderly couple apparently was overcome by smoke as they tried to flee, county Sheriff Donny Youngblood said. Their bodies were found Friday, but their names haven’t been released.
Torin Swinland, 46, and his 81-year-old mother fled to a nearby park after smelling smoke and seeing flames racing down the hillside toward their community.
They returned to find four garages filled with valuables incinerated. Their home escaped any major damage, though embers were still burning near the property when they got back.
The two used water from a hot tub to douse the cinders.
While upset by his own losses, Swinland said he felt worse for those left with nothing.
“They don’t have near what I have left,” he said.