Rebuilding Memories and Moving Forward

By Shannon Rapose
Kern Valley Sun

When major disasters like a fire, a hurricane or an earthquake hit a community, usually the first priority is to get the people within the affected area out of harm’s way. Typically, that process involves massive evacuations, dramatic rescues, rigorous searches and heartfelt relief efforts that are televised for all to see.

Photo by Shannon Rapose / Kern Valley Sun;
Karl (bottom, middle) and Pam Hunt (top, middle) are all smiles as they pose with two of their dogs, Chloe (left) and Tasha (right), on the deck of their newly built home. The Hunts rebuilt on the same lot where their previous home stood.

However, after the immediate danger of the emergency passes, a much longer process of recovery and rebuilding begins. For the communities, and the individuals and families within, this stage can last months and even years. Sadly, this is also the part of a disaster that is rarely seen outside of the community that lived through it.
Even though more than a year has passed since the devastating Erskine Fire burned through several parts of the Kern River Valley community, there are many that are still trying to rebuild in its wake.

Pam and Karl Hunt moved to the Kern River Valley in 2004 from the Los Angeles area to get away from the stressful hustle and bustle of the city lifestyle, finally settling on a quiet street in the South Lake community off Goat Ranch Road. Like most residents of the Kern River Valley that have been in the area for any great length of time, the Hunts had seen many fires come close then go the other way or be extinguished before they threatened any structures. So when Karl started driving up the canyon coming home from work on June 23 and noticed a plume of smoke above the mountains, he tried not to panic. Once he got into Lake Isabella, he called Pam to warn her that there was a fire on the hill behind Vons and that the wind was pushing it their direction. Within an hour, the fire was at their door step.

“I have never in my life seen fire move that fast. There was no time to be frightened or to panic because the adrenaline kicked in,” said Karl Hunt. “You just have to move forward and get out. The main thing was we were able to get out with our lives and our animals.”
Pam recalls watching Karl trying to avoid large burning embers that were falling all around him in their yard as they were desperately trying to flee their house. They managed to get out with their animals and a few personal items they were able to grab.

“We left with the hope that we would be back in an hour because it’s going to turn away, it always does,” Karl said, tears running down his cheek as he revisited his thoughts from that day. Even now, over a year later, the feelings and memories are still very vivid and raw.

“Maybe our house would be spared,” Pam recalled thinking as they drove away.

Sadly, days later, the Hunts found themselves sifting through mounds of ash that were once their home with nearly 40 years of memories and mementos inside of it.
“No one can say they know how you feel when you have lost everything, and they haven’t lost anything,” said Karl. “They can only imagine.”
“We hope that no one ever has to go through the hurt that we had to go through,” added Pam.

After the smoke cleared, many survivors moved away to start over somewhere else, but Pam and Karl were among the few that chose to stay. Out of the 16 lots between Thistle and Redbud in South Lake, only four houses were left standing, and the Hunts are the only ones to rebuild.

In the months that followed, it became apparent to the Hunts that moving forward was going to be a long and trying process with new regulations to abide by and miles of red tape to work through. However, they were fortunate enough to rent a house that was spared from the fire, right across the street from where their house once stood, so they could watch the progress of everything.

“After losing everything, we thought, look at the bright side, now we can build what we want,” said Pam.

As life settled down again and after months of haggling with contractors and arguing with the county, the Hunts were finally allowed to rebuild their lives and their new home.

“You think you go through stress every day; you don’t even know where to begin because of all the entities you have to go through after any kind of disaster like this,” Pam said. “Trying to turn on the electric, the water, getting paperwork for cars, social security cards, birth certificates, I can’t even name all the people we had to go through. People don’t think of things like that.”

“We had no proof of anything. The only reason we still had our driver licenses is because they were on us,” said Karl. “If I had to go apply for job, I wouldn’t be able to prove who I was or that I was a U.S. citizen because all our important papers were gone.”

One of those important papers that went up in smoke was Pam and Karl’s marriage license. The Hunts had already talked about renewing their vows on their 40th or 50th wedding anniversary before the Erskine Fire. However, if they learned nothing else from the Erskine Fire, it was that life was too short and tomorrow is never guaranteed. So, the Hunts decided that they weren’t going to wait and started making plans for vow renewal ceremony that would be held on their 38th wedding anniversary. They figured what better way to celebrate a new beginning in a new home with new memories and a celebration of their life together?

Just one week before their vow renewal ceremony took place on August 11, with all their family and friends coming from all over the country, the Hunts were able to move into their new home.
Even though things appear to be falling back into place for the Hunts, there are still many things that can never be replaced, like the handwritten diary from Karl’s grandfather from World War I. “I still have the memories from the things that were lost, which is great,” said Karl, “but I miss the touch. We can never get that back.”