Erskine Fire survivor in new FEMA housing: 'It is so marvelous'

Erskine Fire survivor Flora Onstot checks out a new housing unit provided by FEMA on Wednesday, May 17, 2017. (KBAK/KBFX photo)

Thirteen families that survived the massive Erskine Fire finally got to go home on Wednesday. The neighbors moved into their new houses that were donated by federal officials.

Flora Onstot walked into her new two-bedroom home just before noon.

"Oh my, how nice," she said. "Oh, boy."

She walked into one bedroom, looked over the new kitchen, and checked the second bedroom in the back.

Then, she got a glimpse of the bathroom.

"Oh, gosh," she said. It has a walk-in shower with a bench, which she said will be much safer.

Onstot is 89 years old, and she's lived in South Lake for about 40 years. But last June, her mobile home was destroyed in the Erskine Fire.

"My grandson grabbed the cat, and put it in the car and we split," Onstot said. "It was coming down the street, and boy -- we didn't wait for it to get to us."

For the last 11 months, she stayed with a daughter in Arizona and a brother in Texas. Her grandson picked her up from the airport Tuesday, ready to move in on Wednesday.

In all, the county got 27 housing units from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They had been deemed surplus, donated to the state, and then transferred to Kern. Most of the units have never been used.

The county made the housing available to low-income residents who owned their homes. If the home was destroyed in the fire, and a primary residence that was under- or un-insured, they could apply for the FEMA units.

"I love it," Angela Harris told Eyewitness News. "I mean, I lost everything, and now I have everything back." Harris had lived for about two years in a double-wide, and her family also escaped the blaze.

Her home had been uninsured, she was just about to get insurance, but the fire got them first.

They now have a three-bedroom FEMA unit.

Like the others, it also comes with beds, a couch, tables and chests of drawers. The kitchen is already equipped with a refrigerator, stove and microwave oven. "Everything," Harris said, "all the way down to the dish drainer and trash can."

Volunteers and officials with the Kern County Planning Department made their way to each family moving into the new units. At Harris' home, they had toys for her two kids, and house-warming gifts like towels and snacks.

Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason said the items were donated, and gathered up by volunteers.

"They realized that we're dealing with human beings, and they put a little humanity with it," Gleason said. The supervisor said he remembers vividly the evacuations, touring the burned areas, and working with state disaster response officials.

"The whole trail of tears that we've gone through, to finally get here, it's happy tears," Gleason said. "It's a great time."

On Wednesday the families were handed keys, and signed documents to take the FEMA units. The housing is usually considered interim, but under the county plan, if someone lives in one for three years they will own the unit.

The county plans to hand over keys to 14 more families next week.

Angela Harris said their new FEMA unit is smaller than the mobile home they lost, but she's very grateful for the help.

"It's been hard," she said, "I've had a lot of friends, I've had the pastor from the Kern Valley Baptist Church, everybody, I mean, they've been wonderful."

Onstot gave big hugs to all the county staff who dropped off gifts at her new home. "Thank you so much," she told each one.

Onstot is also grateful for help from the local community and others.

"It is so marvelous, I could just cry," she said, getting a hug from her grandson. "It's so wonderful."

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