(Reuters) - Firefighters on Tuesday turned a corner in efforts to tame a deadly wildfire burning north of Los Angeles, containing about 45 percent of the blaze and beginning to open roads and lift some evacuation orders.
The 45,000-acre Erskine Fire, which killed at least two people and reduced 250 structures to rubble in the area around Lake Isabella in Kern County, is the biggest and most destructive of nine large wildfires burning up and down the state, from the Klamath National Forest near Oregon to desert scrubland close to the Mexico border.
A blistering heat wave that has baked much of California in abnormally high temperatures ranging from the upper 90s to the triple digits has been a major factor in the conflagrations.
On Tuesday, Kern County emergency officials said they would begin allowing residents of several communities to go home. But they cautioned that some were without power and bottled water would be available for residents who choose to return.
State Highway 178, which runs through the area and had been closed, was re-opened late Tuesday morning, but some connecting roads were still closed, the U.S. Forest Service said on its InciWeb fire information site.
Evacuation orders remain in place for the communities of Squirrel Valley and South Lake, the Kern County Emergency Operations Center said.
The blaze erupted Thursday afternoon and spread quickly through several communities south of the lake, driven by high winds, as it roared largely unchecked for two days and forced hundreds of residents from their homes.
On Friday, Anglican priest Byron McKaig and his wife, Gladys, were killed in the fire, Bishop Eric Menees of the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin said in a statement.
Kern County fire authorities warned that the death toll could rise as investigators combed through the rubble of homes that went up in flames.
While California's wildfire season officially began in May, the rash of blazes since last week signaled the state's first widespread outbreak of intense, deadly fire activity this year.
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 (400 square km).
The cause of the Erskine fire was under investigation. Most of the other blazes burning in the state are 60 percent or more contained.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)