LAKE ISABELLA, Calif. (AP) — A deadly wildfire that roared through dry brush and trees in the mountains of central California gave residents little time to flee as flames burned dozens of homes to the ground, propane tanks exploded, and smoke obscured the path to safety.
An elderly couple trying to flee from the flames were overcome with smoke outside of their house and killed, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said.
Their bodies were found Friday near Lake Isabella, a popular recreation area east of Bakersfield that was ravaged by wind-whipped flames, said Phil Neufeld, a county fire spokesman.
At least 80 houses were destroyed in the southern Sierra Nevada as the fire burned out of control across nearly 47 square miles, leveling neighborhoods and forcing thousands of people to flee from fast-moving flames.
The names of the two dead have not been released. The sheriff said his department hasn’t been able to search very extensively and would be looking through burned homes with cadaver dogs seeking more possible victims.
David Klippel, 78, a retired police officer, said he didn’t see much of a threat after receiving an automated call advising him to leave. That changed dramatically within an hour Thursday afternoon.
“I’ve never been so close to a fast-moving, ferocious fire. It was unbelievable,” said Klippel, who later learned his house had caught fire. “I almost didn’t have time to get out.”
Neighborhoods of mobile homes were charred to their foundations. Gusty winds pushed the flames and smoke farther into drought-starved terrain.
“The forces of nature collided with a spark,” Kern County Fire Chief Brian Marshall said. “The mountainous terrain, five years of drought and wind gusts of over 20 mph all drove a fire over 11 miles in 13 hours.”
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 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.
The California blaze erupted quickly, putting some 1,500 homes in jeopardy. Three firefighters suffered from smoke inhalation.
Crews faced a “firefight of epic proportions” as they tried to protect neighborhoods, Marshall said. Officials said they expect to find many more homes destroyed as the smoke clears and they do a more thorough check of smoldering neighborhoods.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, freeing up money and resources to fight the fire and cleanup its aftermath. It also temporarily suspends some state regulations and waives fees as a way to ease the return of evacuees and those who have lost homes.
Dramatic video from Thursday night showed homes fully engulfed and others already gone as propane tanks flared up and popped. Flames glowing in the steep, rocky hillsides were reflected on the lake.
Residents described a frantic flight from communities surrounding the lake, a dammed section of the Kern River that is a destination for boating, fishing, rafting, hiking and camping.
Cachet Kirby, 22, of Mount Mesa and her neighbors grabbed clothes, blankets and their dogs and fled through thick smoke as flames charged down the slopes.
“It was to the point you couldn’t see, you couldn’t breathe,” she said.
She and others, exhausted Friday morning after little sleep in shelters and cars, were desperate for information about their homes.
“We could have gotten lucky and the wind shifted, or our house could be burned down,” Kirby said.
Cellphone service was cut off in many areas, contributing to the anxieties.
Very low humidity and gusty winds of up to 55 mph could worsen the blaze that broke out amid high temperatures and climbed over at least three ridges into hillside neighborhoods.
“I’ve never been in a wildland fire where I’ve seen so many homes burn,” Kern County fire Capt. Tyler Townsend said. “It’s one of the most devastating I’ve ever seen.”
This story has been revised to clarify the bodies were not found in Lake Isabella, but near the community, and to correct the spelling of Klippel.
Melley reported from Los Angeles. Reporters Andrew Dalton and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.