California firefighters contain most of state’s biggest wildfire

Firefighters in central California had by Wednesday contained most of a major blaze that ranks as the biggest and deadliest of several that are raging in an early summer heatwave.

Crews had contained about 60 percent of fire, named Erskine, up from 15 percent on Tuesday, in the drought-parched foothills near Lake Isabella in Kern County, about 110 miles (180 km) north of Los Angeles, fire managers said.

A major highway through the area had also been reopened and more evacuees had been allowed to return home, authorities said.

About 1,800 firefighters were battling the blaze that has burned 47,000 acres, or more than 70 square miles (190 square km), since it started on Thursday.

Erskine was largely unchecked during its first two days as high winds drove flames fast 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 that salvage crews might find more bodies as they make 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 – California’s first wildfire fatalities of 2016.

The wildfire season officially began in May but the nine major fires that have started in California over the past week marked the first widespread outbreak of intense fires this year. Erskine is 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.

Authorities are investigating what caused Erskine.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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