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Rising from the ashes: A community rebuilds after the Erskine Fire

Posted at 5:04 PM, Feb 22, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-23 14:53:33-05

Amanda Gregg, with her three children in tow, gets in her car. She turns on the ignition. She backs out of her driveway. And with a deep breath, heads to her childhood home.

 

She moved to 8606 Paintbrush Drive in South Lake when she was just six years old. This is where she grew up. This is where all of her fondest childhood memories took place.

“We would hike up those mountains. We loved the outdoors,” she said.

 

This is also where she was hoping to see her children grow up: 13-year-old Haley, 11-year-old Christian, and 5-month-old Gavin.      

June 23, 2016 started as a normal day for Amanda. “It started off as a great day – a nice, happy day. My best friend and my sister-in-law came over. I was actually planning [Gavin’s] baby shower all day long.”

 

Photo by 23ABC

 

The day took a turn when Amanda began having contractions. Only six months pregnant at the time, she rushed to a hospital in Bakersfield with fears of pre-term labor. While she was on her way, Amanda got a text that would forever change her life.

“My friend that had left lives in Isabella. She sent a picture of the little fire burning in Isabella. She’s like ‘Hey, there’s a small fire burning here’, and I said ‘Oh, okay. [The firefighters] will get it out.’ I left 20-25 minutes after that, and the fire was already in Mount Mesa which is the next town over from South Lake.”

The Fire

At approximately 4:00 p.m., the Erskine Fire began at an archery facility in Lake Isabella and quickly spread over the mountainous area into surrounding communities. 

Kern County Fire Department Chief Bryan Marshall said in a press conference the fire burned faster than any fire he had seen before. Within the first 24 hours, more than 30,000 acres were completely destroyed.

A lethal combination – heavy wind, a five-year drought, high temperatures, and low humidity – created the perfect conditions for the fire to spread the way it did.

It took nearly three weeks to reach full containment. In the end, nearly 300 homes were destroyed and two lives were lost to the blaze. It became the most destructive fire in Kern County history, and the 15th most destructive in California history.

The Neighborhood

South Lake was one of the hardest hit communities. The destruction is still visible today. Whole blocks have been wiped out, and other areas show the randomness of the blaze’s path with a few homes left untouched.

                        

Robert Gammel’s South Lake home sits next to empty lots. Graphic credit: 23ABC

 

Robert Gammel is one of the lucky ones. His house was miraculously out of the fire’s path. He calls it a divine intervention. “There was something else involved for us to make it and them not to. I don’t know what it was. I don’t know.”

 

Photo by 23ABC

 

Those who lived around him lost everything. He said the neighborhood is a shell of what it used to be. The emptiness can be felt within.  “Where are all the people? I don’t know.”

Many people left the neighborhood. Some even left the state, taken in by family members.

For those who stayed, the rebuilding process began.

A Community Rebuilds

The Kern Valley Long-Term Recovery Group (KRVLTRG) hopes to help Erskine Fire victims get back on their feet.

“We’re looking to try and bring a lot of these families that don’t have the resources to recover themselves and are in high risk populations, to try and help rebuild and put them into safe and functional housing for the long term,” Justin Powers, co-chair of the organization, said..

The group is just beginning the first phase of reconstruction nearly eight months later. Many residents have wondered why it has taken so long.

“It does seem like it’s taken time, it takes more time than I would like for to, but when you compare it to some of the other disasters that have happened around the state and the country, we’re kind of in the ball park for the timeline for where we need to be,” Powers said.

Powers said the KRVLTRG has taken the time to build the foundation for all the work that needs to be done. One of the major things they’ve been doing – case management.

The group currently has 73 cases they are managing, all families and individuals in need.

Powers said the organization has a combination of different funds – including the Erskine Fire Fund – totaling around $200,000. They hope to use this money to build homes for these victims, but with estimates of up to $60,000 to construct one home, case management has become even more important to determine which cases are the most vulnerable, and to prevent fraud and duplication of benefits.

Hoping to start the building process soon, the group has brought in the Mennonite Disaster Service and Habitat for Humanity, both offering free labor to help build the homes. But even with this gain in momentum, the recovery effort is still expected to take a long time.

“The phrase that I keep hearing, and the phrase that I dislike a bit, is that there is nothing quick about long-term recovery,” Powers said.

It could take up to two to three years for a community to fully recover after a disaster like the Erskine Fire, according to Powers.

“With the funds we have right now, there’s not a lot of building products we can do. So, our next focus is that we do need to raise additional funds in order to be able to build more homes for more of these families,” he said.

 

Photo by 23ABC

 

They are also looking for volunteers for every aspect of the rebuilding process – skilled contractors, laborers, and case managers. Even with the long road ahead, Powers is optimistic. “I think we’re going to be able to do a lot of good and I think we’re going to be able to build some homes for some families and get them into a new normal after the fire.”

The Future

Amanda and her family are continuing to work toward their new normal. They currently live in a rental house near South Lake, thankful for the generosity and outpouring of love the community has shown them.

 

                        

Amanda Gregg’s childhood home lost to to Erskine Fire. Graphic credit: 23ABC

 

Visiting the lot where her family home once stood – 8606 Paintbrush Drive – she is hopes that someday she and her family can come back. “I really still hold on to hope that we can rebuild one day,” Gregg said.

She said Gavin will know this spot well.  “I’ll come and share our memories, and whether or not we rebuild or if my dad gets rid of the lot, whatever we do with it, I’ll still always have this spot to come back to and remind him of every childhood memory that I had.”

Even though they lost priceless family heirlooms, nothing is as important as life itself, she said.

                        
Photo by 23ABC

“It was a home and I miss it, but home is where you’re at and what you make of it, so I think that we’ll always have a home because we have each other.”

A strong family, and even stronger community, is working to rebuild day after day and rise from the ashes.

Getting Help

On February 28, the Kern Valley Long Term Recovery Group, in coordination with All For One and the Heather Berry Therapy, is forming a support group for Erskine victims. 

That meeting will start 5 p.m. in the cafe at Faith Community located at 20 W. Panorama Drive in Wofford Heights.