Written by The Business Journal Staff
(AP) — Crews made progress against a wildfire that killed two people and destroyed 200 homes as it tore through mountain communities in central California, leaving little time for residents to flee the fast-moving flames.
About 2,000 firefighters increased containment on the nearly 68-square-mile blaze to 40 percent, federal fire officials said Sunday evening. But the death toll could rise as cadaver dogs search for remains in neighborhoods occupied by many retirees on fixed incomes, officials warned.
“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.”
Firefighters have found a set of remains up the street from O’Brien’s rental homes, but they were so badly burned that forensic investigators need to determine whether they belong to a person or animal, Kern County sheriff’s spokesman Ray Pruitt said.
The fire raged through small communities of houses and mobile homes that surround Lake Isabella and the Kern River, a popular spot for fishing, whitewater rafting and other outdoor activities in the southern Sierra Nevada.
Besides those destroyed, 75 homes were damaged. Evacuations were still in place Monday, but it’s not clear how many residents were affected.
Scorching heat and tinder-dry conditions across the West have contributed to massive wildfires that have destroyed properties and forced residents to leave their homes.
The blaze that began Thursday in California quickly became the most destructive. 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 funds for firefighting efforts.
The flames moved so quickly through parched brush and timber that some residents barely escaped — and two didn’t.
An elderly couple apparently was overcome by smoke as they tried to flee, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said. Their bodies were found Friday, but their names have not been released.
After smelling smoke and seeing flames racing down a hillside, Torin Swinland, 46, and his 81-year-old mother fled to a nearby park.
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 them.
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.