by Carmela Burke, L.A. Region Public Information Officer who was deployed to help at the Erskine Fire in Kern County which destroyed 309 structures.
As a writer and editor, as soon as I sense a compelling story from an interviewee, I will “sit back” and leave the story practically as-is with very few edits. This is what happened with Red Cross volunteers Wendy LaRue and Scott Tibbetts, whom I met on assignment while deployed recently to assist at the Erskine Wildfire in Kern County.
In June, Scott Tibbetts joined Kern County’s American Red Cross Community Chapter as a Disaster Program Manager. Prior to that, he and Wendy LaRue were Disaster Program Managers in Kentucky. When the Erskine Fire broke out, they were staying with Scott’s parents in Lake Isabella until they could find housing in Bakersfield. Scott and Wendy are currently helping fellow evacuees with long-term recovery. Here is the story of Scott, Wendy, and their Huskies Luka and Sadie in Wendy LaRue’s own words.
I was at home with Scott’s dad and stepmom when his dad asked if we had seen the smoke. I went outside to check it out and realized that the fire was headed towards the house. I tried to get information about the fire online and couldn’t find anything. I called Scott but the fire had just started, so there wasn’t much information. Within a couple of minutes, the flames crested the mountain and with the high winds, raced down towards the house. Because there is only one road in-and-out of the area, it became quite obvious very quickly we needed to leave.
As I prepared to evacuate, I tried to talk Scott’s parents into going with me. They refused. I drove down the driveway and then the main road only to see the flames quickly coming towards my escape route. I then turned around and went back home to try once more to get Scott’s parents to leave the house with me. Again they refused. Realizing the immediate life threat, I had to make the decision no one wants to make, I had to leave them and the dogs and get to the Lake Isabella Senior Center.
This Senior Center would later become the headquarters for the American Red Cross Erskine Fire Disaster Relief Operation. Scott had left Bakersfield by this time and showed up at the Senior Center soon afterwards. I had already had my Red Cross file transferred to Kern County and started volunteering during the couple of weeks that we lived here. I was assigned to the operation immediately to help start our Chapter’s response to the event.
After getting operations started and running them for a few hours, Scott headed back up into the house in Squirrel Valley to try for a third time to get his parents to evacuate. His stepmom left this time and he brought her to the Senior Center. At 3 a.m. on June 23, Scott and I both drove back up to the house to try for a final time to get his dad out.
The drive was terrifying. There were burning trees in the roadway, fire on both sides of the road, smoke so thick that visibility was difficult. Every mountainside along the way, including the mountain we live on, was engulfed in fire. We drove past houses along the road that were fully engulfed in fire. As we got closer to the house, we didn’t know what to expect or what we would find. When we got to the house there were still small fires burning within feet of the house and the surrounding landscape was charred. We could see the fire line racing up the hillside leaving the hillside glowing dark red.
With the fire extinguisher we were carrying, Scott put out the fire that was still burning near the front door. We went inside to find the house super-heated and full of smoke, without power or water services but his dad was still alive.
We convinced him that he needed to leave. The fire threat was still so great. We didn’t take anything else with us and rapidly evacuated…again. We took him to the Red Cross shelter so he could rest, eat and get any Health Services needs met. Scott and I returned to headquarters to resume operations. Scott was able to speak with Animal Control and we later discovered they checked on and fed/watered the dogs daily until access was allowed into the area by the public.
Scott and I moved into the staff shelter for Red Cross responders to the Erskine Fire. Scott became the Red Cross Director of Operations and I became the Deputy Director of Operations for the Erskine Fire relief effort. Meantime, as we could, we tried to keep in contact with his parents. With AT&T phone services malfunctioning, this proved to be very difficult. At least we knew they were in a safe place. Once we were able to gain access to the house, we found Sadie and Luka to be alive and well with no burns or injuries. As Animal Control had promised, they were fed and watered. We got permission from the Job Director to bring them to headquarters. They received love from volunteers deployed from around the country and a mutual sense of safety and “it’s alright” was felt by all. Scott’s dad and stepmom were able to leave the shelter after a couple days to stay with friends in the area.