They saw hundreds of homes, gone; dozens of vehicles burned to a crisp; tens of millions of dollars worth of damage.
And then, amid the smoldering ruins, Bill Johnson spotted his neighbors.
Byron and Gladys McKaig were lying against a corner of their fire-ravaged fence.
They were not moving.
The retired priest and his church organist wife, so close in life, had died together during the blaze.
“He was, like, on top of her, and they were together, like he was blocking her from the fire,” Johnson told the Los Angeles Times. “It made me sick because immediately I saw and knew exactly what had happened — that they were alive and ran out of this burning inferno and got stuck, and that was where they ended.
“I thought it was terrible for those people to go like that. Just horrible,” he added. “They didn’t deserve it.”
Friends and family members, however, took some solace in the fact that the elderly couple died embracing each other.
“It was beautiful, his devotion to her,” Bishop Eric Menees told Bakersfield.com. “He cared for her up until their very last seconds.”
The couple’s clothes appeared untouched by the fire. They were apparently overcome by smoke as they tried to escape, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood told Bakersfieldnow.com.
The McKaigs are the only known fatalities so far in what is being called the Erskine fire, named after the street in the town of Lake Isabella where the blaze somehow broke out Thursday.
The fire continued to rage Tuesday, although officials said it is now 60 percent contained and could be completely under control by Thursday, Bakersfieldnow.com reported.
After scorching more than 70,000 acres in five days, however, the fire is already the worst in Kern County history and the worst in all of California this year.
The blaze can even be seen from space, NASA announced.
More than 5,000 firefighters have been deployed to battle the inferno, which authorities say was fueled by low humidity, high temperatures, winds up to 50 miles per hour and, ironically, recent rain.
This spring, El Niño provided enough precipitation for grass to grow across much of Southern California, but not enough to prevent that grass from quickly dying or forests from drying out.
“Between just a normal everyday fire season, the increased grass crop, the bark beetles, it could be a very busy fire season,” Amy Head, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told the Times in early May.
That prediction now rings painfully true for South Lake, a small and sleepy town on the southeast shore of Lake Isabella, located near the southern end of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Before the fire, locals would gather at a gas station to buy fishing tackle and deli sandwiches and catch up.
After the fire, they wept at the sight of their belongings turned to rubble.
“It’s frustrating, it’s irritating and it makes me angry that there was nothing we could do,” Lisa Blair told the Times as she picked through the charred remains of her childhood home. “I understand that [the fire] came up so fast but it sucks when you lose everything you’ve known for the past 15, 20 years.”
“It was a house our grandmother helped us get,” she said, wiping away tears. “It’s just horrible to see it like this now.”
Others were angry. Some accused officials of abandoning South Lake’s trailer parks to protect wealthier communities.
“We don’t count because we’re poor?” Janice Ryan said during a Monday meeting, according to the Times. “Why aren’t we as important as the next town? Why was South Lake bypassed?”
“When you have heavy wind going at 40 to 50 mph, there’s not any fire department anywhere in the world that would be able to catch a fire going that fast,” responded Kern County Fire Department spokesman Anthony Romero, using a bullhorn. “No one is less important here. Everybody is important.”
A day earlier, a 72-year-old man was arrested after driving past a police checkpoint in a desperate attempt to see his destroyed Squirrel Valley home.
Joe Palme blew past a California Highway Patrol checkpoint, then ignored orders to stop, according to Bakersfield.com. When he arrived to find his house gone, a CHP officer demanded he put his hands up, but Palme refused.
The officer pulled his gun, then reholstered it as Palme shouted at the officer to get off his property, the website reported. When Palme tried to reenter his vehicle, the two men fought until other sheriff’s deputies arrived and helped arrest the distraught homeowner. Palme’s wife told police that her husband’s anxiety medication had gone up in flames and that the wildfire had shuttered nearby pharmacies.
“The human tragedy in this deal is, is breathtaking,” Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason told Bakersfieldnow.com.
The greatest human cost came just around the corner from Palme’s residence.
That’s where Byron and Gladys McKaig were found Friday morning.
They had lived in the Lake Isabella area for nearly 30 years.
They met at church. He was a bookish and kindhearted priest who moved to town after a difficult divorce. She was a pious widow who played organ at the local church where Byron found a job.
Their shared love of music and religion made them a “perfect match,” Byron’s daughter, Susan McKaig, told Bakersfield.com. They married in 1984 and went most everywhere together. When Byron drove to Bakersfield to preach, Gladys went with him, playing the organ during services.
When John Denver died in a 1997 plane crash, the priest proudly blared his songs from his and Gladys’s red barn-style house on McCray Road.
Byron sang along to Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” his neighbor, Bill Johnson, told the Times.
On Friday, it was Johnson who found the bodies.
He said Gladys used to drive around town in an old pickup truck, her red hair under a bonnet.
“She was just a sophisticated lady,” Johnson told the Times. “She was like a tough country woman.”
Byron retired from preaching eight years ago but continued to help out from time to time, according to Bakersfield.com. Most of all, he helped his wife, whose health was flagging. He took her to Burger King every morning for breakfast and to a Lake Isabella diner several times a week.
“They never went anywhere without each other,” Ray Conner, another neighbor, told the Times. “And that’s the best way I’m going to describe them. They were just together all the time. Through it all, they were together.”
Including at the end.
That the couple’s bodies were found side by side didn’t surprise those who knew the McKaigs.
“He was devoted to her,” Frank Brassell, the diner’s co-owner, said of Byron and Gladys. “He would have stayed past the last minute in order to save her. … I know he would have.”
Susan McKaig, Byron’s daughter, agreed.
“They were each other’s half,” she told Bakersfield.com. “They loved each other very much, and the family is taking comfort from the fact that they passed together.”