LAKE ISABELLA, Calif. (KGET) — Five years ago today, Mother Nature flexed her muscles with a brutal firestorm that will forever be etched into our memories.
A fierce fire broke out that hot and breezy afternoon in Lake Isabella, quickly consuming hundreds of homes and taking the lives of a married couple. Today, 17 News is looking back at the Erskine Fire and how people who lived through the trauma are coping today.
Standing in what used to be her driveway, Angela Ruotsala recalls the horrors of June 23, 2016.
“I used to love that view, and then the view came to eat us,” she said.
The Erskine Fire was a force of nature that caught everyone by surprise. There was no warning and no time to pack up.
Fire officials say the fire was moving faster than a car on a freeway and swallowing the mountains and hundreds of homes. At one point, 2,000 firefighters attacked the storm from the ground and sky. It wasn’t enough — 285 homes were destroyed.
Some could not escape in time. Byron and Gladys McKaig were overcome by smoke and flames and died in their front yard.
“It just felt like a bad dream, like you just wanted to wake up,” Ruotsala said.
And five years later, there’s still deep pain.
“I’m still to this day still seeing a therapist and kind of working through the PTSD of that moment,” she said.
For Ruotsala and her family, the fire came crashing down on their home like a wave of flames. They barely escaped Mother Nature’s fury.
“I had hot embers sticking to my skin all over me. My hair was catching fire,” she said.
In a matter of moments, the family’s three-bedroom home turned into a pile of rubble. The family cat did not survive.
“There are things that that fire took that money will never replace,” Ruotsala said.
Everything was gone, including the irreplaceable things, such as precious pictures, erased by the fire.
“I had lost twin daughters back in 2000 and all the pictures I had, everything was gone,” she said. “There’s no way to get that back. Everything I had to remind me of my daughters was gone.”
Now, Ruotsala can only visualize her daughters’ faces, but it’s mixed in with the harrowing scenes of the Erskine Fire.
Today, she’s back on her property — a dirt lot that looked entirely different five years ago. She said she’s still finding things that were once hers.
“We still find pieces of melted metal out here. We’ll probably find them for years to come,” Ruotsala said.
As traumatic as the Erskine Fire was for Ruotsala and her family, there was one positive. “I’ve become more discerning on what’s important. There’s a lot of things that I used to think was important and it’s not so much anymore,” she said.
The Erskine Fire was first reported around 4 p.m. on June 23, but within hours, it had quickly engulfed over 8,000 acres of land.
“If not for the heroism of first responders, selflessness of neighbors helping one another, and strong interagency working relationships, the loss of life and property would have been much greater,” the Kern County Fire Department said in a social media post. “Reflecting on the Erskine Fire helps to remind us that Kern County is not immune to large scale disasters and that everyone must continue to prepare themselves for emergencies like this.”
One of the easiest ways to be prepared for other disasters like an earthquake is signing up for alerts from Kern County Emergency Services. Just go to readykern.com.