Wildfires Burn 40 Homes, Threaten 150 in California

TEHACHAPI, Calif. – Firefighters Wednesday braced for strong afternoon winds at the sites of two wildfires north of Los Angeles that have burned about 40 homes, threatened at least 150 more and forced about 2,300 people to evacuate.

The two blazes in mostly rural Kern County remained out of control after scorching more than 26 square miles of hilly pine forests and chaparral.

A blaze that erupted Tuesday 10 miles southeast of Tehachapi destroyed 30 to 40 homes and threatened the remaining 150 homes in the tiny community of Old West Ranch.

Homes in the eastern foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains were smoldering early Wednesday, with one structure appearing to have collapsed in on itself. A singed wooden banister was the only piece of the home left standing. A whitish-yellow haze of smoke covered the blackened ground of the apparently deserted town.

About 250 firefighters from several agencies were battling the 1,230-acre blaze, along with water-dropping aircraft. Crews worked through the night to bulldoze fire lines and burn firebreaks.

The fire about 70 miles north of Los Angeles was moving away from the mix of mobile homes and large new stucco houses. However, the flames leapfrogged through the area, leaving patches of smoldering brush and logs that could blaze up if winds pick up, county fire Battalion Chief David Goodell said.

In northern Kern County, a wildfire that started Monday in Sequoia National Forest burned about 15,600 acres, or about 24 square miles, and was only 5 percent surrounded. The fire destroyed six homes. No other homes were immediately threatened Wednesday morning.

The good news was that mornings and evenings remained cool, moist and calm at both fires, but the winds were expected to increase by midday, said Jeff Barlow, a senior forecaster with the National Weather Service in Hanford.

The winds sweep up and down steep slopes in the area, especially near the Tehachapi area, which is dotted with wind farms.

The winds rise as the sun burns off a dewy inversion layer of cooler air, and that could cause the fires to flare up, Barlow said.

"It's like opening a flue to a fireplace and that's when you see these things really run," he said.

Large fires also create drafts by drawing air into the flames, he said.

In the Tehachapi, years of drought, along with tree diseases and bugs among the foothills' pine and chaparral, have turned the area into a "tinderbox," Goodell said.

Wyant Winsor, 52, a delivery driver for the local school district, was working on property he owns in Old West Ranch when he saw the first smoke at about 2:20 p.m. Tuesday. He watched as it grew rapidly over the next half hour.

When the fire department told him to evacuate, he parked his tractor in a clearing and made a run for it.

"Hopefully it'll be OK," he said with a nervous laugh.

Winsor said he and a friend drove down the road through the fire with flames lapping at his truck on both sides. They were barely able to see the road in front of them through the smoke.

Trace Robie, who lives on Old West Ranch, said the fire grew very quickly and spread through the dry brush, old oaks and pines on the steep hillside.

She grabbed a handful of clothes, her dogs, her cat, a dish to give her pets water and her purse. "I always said I'd grab my photo albums but there was no time. I didn't even think about it," she said.

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 Northern 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.

Berlant said winds were expected to be gusty, but the threat of more thunderstorms has passed.

An additional 187 fires were burning in other remote parts of Lassen County and in Plumas, Siskiyou, Shasta and Modoc counties.

Most of those fires were less than an acre and have been fully contained, Berlant said. They have consumed about 650 acres.