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Death Toll Could Rise in Central California Wildfire, Authorities Warn

Hot, dry weather has fueled several fires, but fire authorities said most were in hand except for one: a 37,000-acre blaze in central California.
IMAGE: Erskine Fire
The 37,000-acre Erskine Fire spread smoke over miles of Kern County, California.Kern County Fire Department

A raging central California wildfire that has already killed two people and destroyed 200 structures was still burning Sunday, and "additional fatalities are possible," authorities said.

After two weeks of battling a number of out-of-control fires in California, Arizona and New Mexico, state and federal crews fires had the upper hand against all but one by Sunday morning — the Erskine Fire in Kern County, north of Los Angeles, which grew from 37,000 acres to 43,360 acres during the day.

Incident commanders said the fire was 40 percent contained Sunday night.

More than 1,700 fire personnel remained Sunday in the area, where hot, dry air was doing them no favors. The fire, which began Thursday, raced through rural communities, wiping out entire blocks. Authorities said Sunday that at least 2,500 homes remain under threat.

Two people, described as an elderly couple, have already been killed after they were overcome by smoke. Another set of remains was found Saturday, but authorities haven't confirmed whether they were human.

Related: Possible Human Remains Found in Aftermath of Deadly California Wildfire

Meanwhile, three Kern County firefighters overcome by smoke during the initial response Thursday have been released from a hospital and were doing fine, the fire department said Sunday.

Intensely hot and dry weather remained a worry, Kern County Fire Engineer Anthony Romero told NBC Los Angeles.

"That's something we have to keep an eye on," Romero said. "It could spark another disaster."

The scorching weather has fueled several other major fires this month, but by Sunday morning, federal fire authorities reported that most were anywhere from 60 percent to almost completely contained:

  • The 46,000-acre Cedar Fire, on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona, was 60 percent contained, federal incident commanders said .
  • The Dog Head Fire in New Mexico, which broke out June 14 and burned nearly 18,000 acres, was 90 percent contained, the U.S. Forest Service said.
  • The 7,600-acre Border Fire, in San Diego County, California, near the Mexico border, was 85 percent contained, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Sunday night.
  • The Sherpa Fire, west of Santa Barbara, California, started June 15 and burned 7,400 acres, but it was 93 percent contained Sunday, the federal incident command center said.
  • And the 5,300-acre San Gabriel Complex of fires, just east of Los Angeles, was at 62 percent containment, federal fire commanders said.