Just before 4:00 p.m. on June 23, 2016, Jim Steel noticed a faint glow out the window of his Squirrel Valley home. He went into his backyard for a closer look, and that’s when Jim first saw the plume of smoke rising from the east side of Cook Peak Mountain. He knew in an instant that the fast moving winds were blowing the flames in their direction.
What he and everyone else did not know at the time, was that the Erskine Fire would soon become the most destructive wildfire in Kern County history.
The Longest Night
“I called to my wife and told her to get the dog, some dog food and I got some important papers, some water, and my Red Cross go bag. Within another 10 minutes the flames were in my neighborhood,” said Jim.
As a local Red Cross volunteer, Jim knew the chapter would be responding to open a shelter. Even though his own home was risk, he headed for the Lake Isabella Senior Center, where he knew the disaster team would be setting up a shelter to assist evacuated residents.
“On the way down the hill towards Highway 178, I encountered a mass exodus of residents and horses making their way through heavy smoke,” said Jim, “At the bottom of the hill, the field behind the hospital was on fire and the staff was moving the hospital patients out into the parking lot on the opposite side of the hospital from the fire.”
Meanwhile, volunteer Cindy Huge was at her home in Bakersfield, putting the finishing touches on a dinner that she was hosting for friends. That’s when she got the call to respond.
“I quickly packed a bag and told everyone to enjoy their meal,” said Cindy, “Little did I know that I would not return home for 72 hours.” As Cindy and a car full of volunteers drove up the canyon to help, they were awestruck at the site of the glowing mountainside.
“We could hardly speak. We all knew at this very moment that this wildfire was horrific,” said Cindy, “As we drove up to the shelter we could see over a hundred people standing outside waiting to get in. People were just standing there with a look of, ‘what is happening here.’”
In the car with Cindy was Red Cross volunteer Shirley Smith. This was her first wildfire response and she didn’t know quite what to expect. Once they arrived, Shirley was tasked with working the registration table at the entrance.
“Wow, suddenly there was an influx of people, coming in so quickly that help was needed at the intake table and we had to recruit the nurse to help,” said Shirley, “She was called away at one point and we ended up have the school secretary helping us.”
“There was so many people at once and so many elderly women who were arriving without their husbands and they – the women – were so scared for their husbands. The men had stayed with the hope of saving their homes. Some did, but some had to flee at the last minute and did lose their homes,” said Shirley, “Stories of pets being left, pictures lost, and general shock was what each person brought to the table. It was surreal but we had to continue to do intake.”
Jim, Cindy, Shirley, and the handful of other volunteers at the Senior Center were in overdrive, frantically setting up cots and organizing the shelter for the displaced residents. But it was short-lived, as the building quickly filled up, and the fire moved directly towards them in Lake Isabella.
Jim knew that some residents of South Lake were probably congregating at the South Fork Elementary School in Weldon, which had been used as a shelter in the past. He volunteered to go there and open a new shelter if needed. But by then, Highway 178 was closed, and he had to go around the lake by way of Kernville, 25 miles, to reach Weldon. When he arrived, there were about six or seven people sitting on the grass in front of the school. With the cell phone towers already destroyed by the fire, Jim remembered that a nearby relative of his had a landline. He was able to go there and call back to the Senior Center for further instructions.
“It was then that I learned the fire commanders decided they did not want a shelter in Weldon, as it was potentially in the fire path. By the time I got back to the school, there were about 60 people outside on the grass and I had to tell them the only shelter location was going to be in Kernville for now,” said Jim.
That first night, the Kernville Elementary School cafeteria would house well over 125 residents. It quickly became the primary shelter and community center for reconnecting loved ones, meals, health services, comfort, and official briefings.
“This evening was probably one of the most difficult that I have ever experienced in my life,” said Cindy. She still remembers the harrowing story of a young girl and her cat that were evacuated that night.
“She was clutching her beloved cat. Her grandmother told me that they ran out of their home with only the cat and had jumped into a pickup truck of a neighbor as a fire ball was quickly consuming the other homes on their street. The young girl was silent, so traumatized that she could not speak.”
Cindy dropped everything to sit by the girl and comfort her.
“I reassured her that the Red Cross was going to give her a safe place to stay for her and her beloved cat. At 3:30 am I found her sound asleep, snuggled next to the cage that her cat was purring in. This precious sight brought tears to my eyes and still does when I think about what this beautiful child went through,” said Cindy.
“The people were in shock. The fire had raced across two valleys in less than an hour,” said Jim, “It was a very difficult night for many people. I had been so busy; I hadn’t had time to reflect on my personal situation but in the quiet hours of the night, the fact that I didn’t know if I had lost my home sunk in. There was no way to talk with my wife.”
It would be three days before Jim would find out that his house had actually survived. It was one of the four homes on his street that had not burned to the ground.
The next morning, day two of the fire, brought a bit of comic relief. Four teenage boys decided they would prefer sleeping in the grass outside that night.
“Here they came about 3:00 a.m. wanting new blankets,” said Jim, “The sprinklers had come on and given them a rude awakening.” It was the chuckle that everyone needed after the long and scary night.
A National Disaster
As the operation continued, Red Cross volunteers provided relief, hope, and comfort to hundreds of residents affected by the Erskine Fire. By the time the shelters closed, the Red Cross had served over 11,400 meals and snacks, provided more than 830 overnight shelter stays, and made over 850 health services contacts.
More volunteers poured in from around the country in the days that followed the initial evacuation, from far away as Florida and Hawaii. Shirley was able to transition back to her primary Red Cross role: Spiritual Care. By now, evacuations were starting to lift, and many families were facing the new reality of the fire’s destruction.
“The thing that continues to stay with me was the image of an entire community burned out, gone with nothing but twisted metal remains of mobile homes and melted aluminum from car wheels running down driveways,” said Shirley, “As we met these people and tried to offer comfort and hope, the thing that seemed to offer the most comfort was simply a hug. The most amazing thing was later when we would meet up with these people somewhere else they would light up and run and hug us and tell us how much we had helped them.”
Kern Valley Strong
The Red Cross transitioned into a long term recovery phase, providing clean up supplies, referrals, financial assistance, and other resources to families as they began to pick up the pieces. By the end of the operation, volunteers had distributed nearly 17,500 clean up kits and recovery items like shovels, gloves, and buckets. The Red Cross partnered with many community organizations that were also working around the clock to support the residents – groups like the Elks Lodge in Wofford Heights, the Salvation Army, Kern County Animal Control, the Central California Animal Disaster Team, Goodwill, All For One, Victim Relief Ministries, and countless others who served meals, provided clothing, or built sifters by hand.
After all the evacuation orders were lifted, the County hosted a Local Assistance Center, or a LAC, or short. The Red Cross was there along with dozens of other organizations to provide a one-stop-shop for recovery services. Red Cross casework volunteers met one on one with families, determining their needs along with how to best meet them. Counselors and Spiritual Care volunteers like Shirley were on hand to meet the emotional needs of the families facing the disaster.
“Everyone in the community was so great to work with and did everything they could to make things work for the clients and the volunteers,” said Shirley, “The service center that was set up for clients to sign up for assistance was a work of art. It seemed to run so smoothly. There were so many agencies there to assist the clients and people in the community. They truly cared about helping these people and getting them on to the road to a new normal.”
Several days after evacuation orders began to lift, Cindy had an opportunity to tour one of the areas most affected by the fire.
“There are few words to describe the devastation I witnessed. All that was left of over 200 hundred homes were piles of ash and metal, hardly a reminder of the many families who lived there,” said Cindy.
Now, one year after the Erskine Fire devastated the community, these memories are still fresh in the minds of the residents and first responders.
“The Erskine Fire has had a profound effect on me,” said Jim, “I have moved from having empathy for the clients we serve, to having personal experience regarding their pain. I saw amazing compassion among the volunteers and the evacuees. Everyone was helping one another in any way they could.”
While the scorched hillsides of the Kern River Valley still serve as a reminder of the fire’s destruction, there are signs of renewal and growth. The community is Kern Valley Strong, and more resilient than ever. The Red Cross is honored to be a part of the Erskine Fire community gathering this week on the one year anniversary of the blaze, from 4:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. at Mountain Mesa Park.
“I of course will never forget the experience and never want to repeat it, but is has been rewarding watching my community pull together in recovery and the Red Cross has been a significant part of that,” said Jim, “For that I’m proud to be a Red Crosser.”