California firefighters gain on worst wildfire

Progress is made to contain 1,400-acre blaze, the larger of two that have forced 2,300 to evacuate

Published July 28, 2010 10:47PM (EDT)

Hundreds of firefighters gained ground Wednesday against the most destructive of two big wildfires that have burned 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 chased residents from the Old West Ranch community about 10 miles south of Tehachapi was 25 percent contained.

The firefighting command revised the number of destroyed structures down to 25, and Kern County Fire Department Battalion Chief Dean Boller said most were homes.

Fire officials initially estimated 30 to 40 homes were lost. Another 150 homes in the loosely connected community remained threatened.

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

Winds were expected to increase to 15 mph later in the day, but Boller said firefighters had yet to see the kind of gusts that drove the fire the previous day.

"It was absolute chaos," he said. "It is very, very overgrown. There's so much dead and downed fuel out there -- we knew we were in trouble."

Boller, who turned over command of the incident to a state fire official on Wednesday, said the area had no reported fire history.

"It probably hasn't burned in over 100 years," he said.

Overnight, the fire ran through the crowns of trees, sending flames 150 feet into the sky, said Kelly Zombro, the new incident commander.

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.

About 1,200 homes and structures scattered in the fire area were considered threatened, but Bureau of Land Management information officer Michell Puckett said that did not mean they were in immediate dangers.

Rafting companies, which normally take vacationers on trips down the Kern River, were being used to ferry firefighters to parts of the blaze that were otherwise inaccessible, Puckett said.

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.

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

"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. I don't know what to say. It's going to be hard, but we'll survive all this."

Meanwhile, firefighters made progress 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.

By Raquel Maria Dillon

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