Firefighters turn corner against deadly California wildfire

by Reuters
Tuesday, 28 June 2016 22:34 GMT

(Adds details on fire's status throughout)

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES, June 28 (Reuters) - Firefighters in central California appeared on Tuesday to have turned a corner in their battle to corral a deadly wildfire that ranks as the biggest and deadliest in a rash of blazes that have raged up and down the state in recent days.

Crews carved containment lines around 45 percent of the fire's perimeter by Tuesday morning, up from 10 percent on Sunday, while a key highway through the area was reopened and additional evacuees were permitted to return to their homes, authorities said.

Fire managers also began to scale back manpower deployed against the so-called Erskine Fire, which erupted Thursday in the drought-parched foothills near Lake Isabella in Kern County, about 110 miles (180 km) north of Los Angeles.

The total firefighting force assigned to the blaze numbered about 1,800 personnel on Tuesday, down from more than 2,000 earlier in the week.

As of Tuesday, nearly 47,000 acres had burned, with little growth reported since Monday.

"Overall the fire was quiet last night," according to an update issued by fire managers on Tuesday. "Smoke will be visible over the next several days as unburned pockets of grass and trees within the fire's perimeter continue to burn."

The fire raged largely unchecked during its first two days as high winds quickly drove flames through several communities south of the lake, burning more than 250 structures to the ground as residents fled for safety.

The charred remains of two people were found on Friday just beyond the ruins of their home, Kern County sheriff's spokesman Ray Pruitt said. Authorities warned earlier that the death toll could rise as salvage crews made their way through devastated neighborhoods to inspect the damage.

The two victims were identified by the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin as a priest and his wife, Byron and Gladys McKaig.

Their deaths marked California's first wildfire fatalities of 2016.

Although wildfire season officially began in May, the nine major blazes that flared across California over the past week in the midst of an early summer heat wave marked the first widespread outbreak of intense fire activity this year. The Erskine was by far the largest and most destructive of those.

Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the state had already experienced some 2,400 wildfires, small and large, since January. They burned a total of 99,000 acres (400 square km).

The cause of the Erskine fire was under investigation. (Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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