Calif. firefighters brace for wind as wildfires burn about 40 homes, threaten dozens of others

By Raquel Maria Dillon, AP
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Calif. wildfires burn about 40 homes, threaten 150

TEHACHAPI, Calif. — Hundreds of firefighters gained ground Wednesday against the most destructive of two big wildfires that have burned dozens of homes and forced 2,300 people to evacuate mountain communities on the edge of the Mojave Desert and in the southern Sierra Nevada.

A 1,400-acre blaze that burned 30 to 40 homes in the Old West Ranch community about 10 miles south of Tehachapi was 25 percent contained, the Kern County Fire Department said. Some 150 homes in the loosely connected community remained threatened.

The area is usually so gusty that wind farms line ridges, but early Wednesday afternoon the weather was cooperating with the 800 firefighters on the lines, producing only light breezes.

At a Red Cross evacuation center in Tehachapi, Sarah DeSmet, 22, of Los Angeles cuddled a dusty black kitten she had pulled out of the rubble at the home of her uncle, George Plesko, who looked dazed as volunteers tried to get him to eat lunch.

“My uncle called my mom to say his final goodbyes” because he didn’t think he would get out alive, DeSmet said.

Part of the fire in the eastern foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains, about 70 miles north of Los Angeles, was sending up a large plume of smoke, while other areas only smoldered.

About 40 miles to the north, a fire that began Monday in Sequoia National Forest grew to 15,600 acres, or about 24 square miles, and was only 5 percent surrounded after burning eight homes and six outbuildings in the area of Kernville, a launching point for mountain adventuring. No other homes were in immediate danger.

Officials were investigating what caused the fires.

The fire in Old West Ranch broke out Tuesday and carved a path of destruction. At one site, a house had collapsed upon itself. At another property, only a singed wooden bannister was left standing.

Lane Butchko, a retired resident without a car, recounted desperately fleeing a half-mile down a mountain road before a motorist picked him up.

“I grabbed my dog and we ran for our lives. I forgot my teeth,” he said. “We were going at a full gallop and halfway down I fell, tripped on the dog’s leash. When I got up, I felt the heat of the fire on my back and I saw a tree burst into flames.”

Years of drought in the Tehachapi area, along with tree diseases and bugs among the foothills’ pine and chaparral, have turned the area into a “tinderbox,” said county fire Battalion Chief David Goodell.

Peggy Pingry, who has lived in Old West Ranch for 25 years with her husband, said people are drawn to the remote area by the solitude, freedom to do what they like on their property, and the wildlife.

“Nobody up there is rich, well, maybe one person. Everyone’s retired or working, with some people on limited incomes,” she said. “They’re all self-sufficient and happy to be alone and off the grid.”

In the parking lot of the evacuation center, Robert Tipton, 67, tried to soothe his dog, Poppy, who barked and whined inside a metal crate.

“It’s OK, girl, you’re all right now,” he said.

Tipton said Poppy’s barking was his first warning of the fire Tuesday afternoon.

He then saw black smoke coming toward his rented home on Summers Drive.

“The next thing I knew, the fire department was up there and I was on the way down the hill towards town, hoping to pick up my things later,” he said. “I found out last night that we’ve lost all our property,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. It’s going to be heard, but we’ll survive all this.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for Kern County on Tuesday, freeing up state resources to battle the fires.

Meanwhile, firefighters made progress early Wednesday against the largest of more than 150 lighting-sparked fires in northeastern California. The 250-acre blaze east of Straylor Lake in the Lassen National Forest was expected to be fully contained by the end of the day, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

An additional 187 fires were burning in other remote parts of Lassen County and in Plumas, Siskiyou, Shasta and Modoc counties. Most were less than an acre and were contained.

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