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PICS: California wildfire 'most destructive' in county history

28 June 2016, 17:30

Lake Isabella – Sallie Keeling had seen enough photos of destruction over four days to know what to expect when she returned on Monday to the fire-ravaged neighbourhood where she and her husband had lived for 13 years.

"There's nothing," she said, covered in soot after digging through the rubble. "Just ashes."

Keeling, 71, surveyed the devastated South Lake near Lake Isabella as evacuation orders were lifted in some nearby communities that suffered less damage from the wildfire that killed two people and destroyed 200 homes in the southern Sierra Nevada.

The fire grew to more than 70 square miles, but was it 40 contained as it burned in steep terrain south of Lake Isabella. Houses could be vulnerable if winds blow the fire back toward some of the communities in the popular recreation area, Fire Chief Brian Marshall said.

"There's still more threats out there," Marshall said. "This is going to go down as the most destructive wildfire in Kern County history."

Cadaver dogs searched through the rubble of devastated neighbourhoods for more possible casualties, though remains found over the weekend were identified as an animal, Kern County sheriff's spokesperson Ray Pruitt said.

Steve Keeling walks through the ashes of his fire-ravaged home, in South Lake, California. (Rich Pedroncelli, AP)

“Escaping barely within an inch of their lives”

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. A man with two guns was arrested on Sunday in a mandatory evacuation area, though further details weren't available on possible charges he could face, Pruitt said.

The fire began on Thursday and quickly exploded in dry brush and bore down on small communities of houses and mobile homes that surround Lake Isabella, a dammed section of the scenic Kern River popular for fishing, white-water rafting and other outdoor activities.

Terrifying flames arrived with little warning and residents, many elderly, had to flee amid heavy smoke.

"People were escaping barely within an inch of their lives," Marshall said.

The bodies of an elderly couple, apparently overcome by smoke, were found on Friday. Their names have not been released.

Lucas Martin stares at a cup found in the ashes of his fire-ravaged home in South Lake, California. (Rich Pedroncelli, AP)

In addition to the destroyed homes, another 75 were damaged.

The fire was the most damaging blaze in California, but it is just one of many that have burned large swaths of the arid West during hot weather.

Keeling poked through debris and twisted metal in a vain search for a safe-like metal box. She unearthed a charred jewellery box, but most everything else was a total loss, including a Chevy pickup truck and small car that sat on their axles nearby.

Her husband, Steve Keeling, said he inherited the house and the ashes of his parents' remains had been inside. They always wanted to spend eternity in that place and now it seemed they would.

Firefighters battle the Erskine Fire by lighting back fires in Lake Isabella, California. (Casey Christie, AP)

A pickup truck passes by the remains of mobile homes devastated by a wildfire, in South Lake, California. (Jae C Hong, AP)

A Kern County firefighter sets a backfire by a wildfire burning near Lake Isabella, California. (Ryan Babroff, AP)

- AP

Tags us wildfire

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