Local News

Wednesday, Jul 28 2010 01:35 PM

West Fire grows near Tehachapi

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Dustin Fenzke, left, and Ed Clark hustle up a hill at the West Fire near Tehachapi. The fire was 25 % contained Wednesday afternoon.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Barbara Grantham gives out free snacks provided by Country Oaks Baptist Church under an Oak tree that didn't burn near Summers Drive. The Grantham home was spared from the West Fire Tuesday night and they wanted to give back to the community and firefighters.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    With the wind dying down Wednesday morning, firefighters were able to get ahead of the fire and cut firebreaks. Wind draws construction of wind turbines to generate electricity to the Tehachapi area.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Frank Scheibel takes a nap Wednesday morning after spending the night guarding his home on Wild Horse on Wednesday morning as firefighters who stood by the fire had for the moment passed his home by.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    "Praise God it's still standing" said Buz Grantham as he stood near his home on Summers Drive. He tried to stay with the house Tuesday night but when he saw the West Fire near Tehachapi getting too close he let the chickens out of their coop.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger listens to a briefing of the West Fire near Tehachapi and the Bull fire near Kernville Wednesday afternoon. The governor was in Tehachapi for the briefing.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    An air tanker makes a preventative drop ahead of the West Fire near Tehachapi late Wednesday morning.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    A helicopter makes a water drop on the West Fire near Tehachapi to slow its progress Wednesday.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    As the West fire burns away from Tehachapi, fire flares up as wind kicks up.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Fire crews take advantage of favorable conditions to cut firebreaks on West Fire near Tehachapi.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    "Hope springs eternal," Bert Bockover says, reflecting Wednesday afternoon on the West Fire near Tehachapi that destroyed his trailer. He is grateful much of his property was not destroyed as the flames burned the area.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    A helicopter make s a precision drop on the West Fire near Tehachapi that had jumped a fire line in the southwest area of the fire Wednesday morning.

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    An aerial photo of a destroyed home during the West Fire near Tehachapi Wednesday afternoon.

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    An aerial shot of a prison fire team working a ridge at the West Fire near Tehachapi Wednesday afternoon.

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Aerial of a helicopter droping water a ridge at the West fire in Tehachapi Wednesday afternoon.

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Fire crews work a crest of a ridge at the West Fire near Tehachapi Wednesday afternoon.

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    A Kern County fire helicopter piloted by Patrick Williams lands for fuel. The Bell UH1H uses 100 gallons of fuel an hour and carries up to 400 gallons of water as it fights the West Fire near Tehachapi Wednesday afternoon.

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BY STEVE E. SWENSON, Californian staff writer sswenson@bakersfield.com

The initial swiftness of the devastating West Fire in rugged tree, brush and dry grass terrain southeast of Tehachapi was stunning and terrifying to residents who evacuated to save themselves.

The blaze that began Tuesday afternoon continued to burn all day Wednesday, growing to 1,400 acres and destroying an estimated 25 to 40 structures ranging from trailers to large homes with spectacular views. Exact damage was unavailable Wednesday as crews were expected to survey the loss Thursday, fire officials said.

Related Info

EVACUATION CENTERS

• Lake Isabella Senior Center, 6409 Lake Isabella Blvd.

• Old Jacobs Junior High, 126 Snyder St., Tehachapi

When evacuating take:

Family identification and other important documents

Prescription medications, eyeglasses, dentures

Change of clothing and sturdy footwear

Evacuate with domestic pets in their carrier with their food.

 

AIR QUALITY

Air quality officials advised east Kern residents to restrict outdoor activities where there’s wildfire smoke.

The Eastern Kern Air Pollution Control District said communities in and adjacent to the Kern River Valley are expected to see smoke from the Bull Fire at or near ground level for part of each day for the rest of this week. Other areas of east Kern could be hit with smoke intermittently for the rest of the week, depending on wind patterns.

The Tehachapi area may be heavily affected by smoke from the West Fire until it is controlled, the district said. Fire officials said they expect containment Friday.

The air district recommended people limit normal outdoor activities when they smell smoke or can see smoke near ground level in their immediate area. It urged children and the elderly to take special precautions and said people with pre-existing heart and lung problems shouldn’t do any activity in smoky conditions.

The district also recommended people stay in air-conditioned buildings with windows and doors closed. It said those who are inside where there’s a mechanical ventilation system that brings in outdoor air should set the system to “re-circulate” mode if possible.

For more information call the air district at 862-5250.

Kern County fire officials said they don’t keep track of the largest loss of homes in a wildfire, but the 2002 Deer Fire in Bodfish was the worst in recent history with 47 homes destroyed or damaged, as well as the loss of 84 sheds, 63 vehicles, eight boats and 22 trailers.

The inferno that sent flames more than 100 feet high was on Old West Ranch, a community of about 200 homes where people have to develop their own water and electrical power sources, residents said.

The homes are spread out among the canyons and ridges about four to six miles south of HIghway 58 at the Lehigh Southwest Cement plant. The wind farm on the hills leading to Mojave is a couple of miles northeast of the ranch.

One resident, George Plesko, was near the start of the fire.

“I watched it burn everything around,” he said. “It’s crazy how fast it burned.”

He lost his home in the blaze.

More than 1,000 firefighters — aided by a fleet of bulldozers, eight helicopters and nine retardant-dropping planes — worked on preventing further loss and carving fire lines to hold the fire at bay, officials said.

They were blessed with light winds of less than 14 mph, relatively high humidity (21 percent) and daylight with up to 94-degree temperatures to continue their assault, establishing a 25 percent containment by mid-day, Kern County Fire Department spokesman Brandon Smith said.

Officials expected full containment by Friday, he said.

He noted that even though the Bull Fire that started Monday near Kernville had huge resources devoted to it, there was no delay in getting resources to the West Fire. One resident, Brent Scheibel, agreed, saying of the firefighters, “They were very quick and very efficient.”

CalFire spokesman Mike Mohler said the fire pushed east on Wednesday, but crews held it behind Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road to protect the wind farms.

But there were higher winds Tuesday when it started off Blackburn Canyon Road just north of Middlebrook Road — among the many all-dirt streets on the ranch — as the fire took off on dry grass, thick shrubs and dry oak and pine trees that gave the fire a fury of flames consuming vegetation and homes.

Dead trees that were infested by bark beetles, killing them and leaving them dry and easily flammable, just added to the wind-aided spread, Smith said.

“It’s Tehachapi. We have windmills up here,” Smith said. “That’s what made it move really fast.”

It moved so fast and with so much destruction that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency to free up resources to fight both the West Fire and the Bull Fire that continued for a third day to burn north of Kernville.

Schwarzenegger conducted a news conference at Tehachapi High School, command central for West Fire operations. He praised firefighters for “quick and decisive action” and said, “People who created defensive space around their homes saved their homes.”

A few miles away, helicopters lowered hoses into dip tanks by the glider airport off Dennison Road to douse flare-ups of flames that kept the fire active Wednesday.

At times it seemed like the smoke was reduced to a wispy white cloud, but minutes later heavy dark brown smoke — indicative of dense wood or structures — rose nearly straight up from the ground.

Fire trucks — red, green, yellow and white depending upon which agency was represented — climbed up Blackburn Canyon Road, the main road into the ranch, and then fanned out to bring firefighters to spots to protect or to attack.

Hot shot crews with shovels and cutting tools went off in groups to remove vegetation in a path of dirt firebreaks.

Meanwhile, the evacuation that began Tuesday remained in effect all day Wednesday, though some residents went back to their homes for a look-see.

Some structures in the area date to the late 1800s, before building permits or development standards, said Chuck Lackey, director of Kern County’s Engineering and Survey Services Department.

“Some areas are so remote they do not have any utilities,” including electricity or telephone service, he said.

Deeds from the 1880s show people acquired property from the United States government — probably settlers, Lackey said, as there was a lot of mining in the area then.

The oldest “roads” are dirt and so narrow they look more like trails, he said. Some are overgrown.

Some development took place in the 1970s and 1980s, but the newer, wider roads are still dirt. Maps show lots start at 2.5 acres, though many are much larger. Newer homes have electricity and phones, but everyone in Old West Ranch uses a septic tank and water is supplied by wells, Lackey said. There is no community water system. Propane is used for heat and cooking.

Newer houses are also required to have water tanks for fire protection. But those tanks, which typically hold about 3,000 gallons, aren’t useful in a big wildfire like the West Fire, Lackey said. They’re meant more for single-home incidents.

— Californian staff writer Gretchen Wenner contributed to this report.

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