Calif. wildfires destroy dozens of homes, threaten 150

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TEHACHAPI, Calif. — Two wildfires that erupted and spread quickly near the Mojave Desert have destroyed dozens of homes and forced evacuations in remote areas of California as hundreds of firefighters work to contain the flames.

The most destructive of the fires was burning about 10 miles southeast of Tehachapi, which is about 75 miles north of Los Angeles.

More than 30 homes were lost in the small hill community of Old West Ranch and another 150 structures were threatened, firefighters said Tuesday.

Kern County Fire Department Engineer Anthony Romero said the fire erupted at about 3 p.m. in the area some 70 miles north of Los Angeles. It has grown to 1,230 acres, or nearly 2 square miles, according to the fire department.

“The wind has been a big factor,” Romero said. “It’s changing on us a lot.”

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.

About 250 firefighters from several different agencies were on the scene, along with water-dropping aircraft.

Battalion Chief David Goodell said the fire was about 25% contained at 1 a.m. Crews were working on the southeast corner of the blaze widening bulldozer lines and setting backfires.

“We’re trying to put to bed a fire that could get a lot bigger,” he said.

Years of drought, along with tree diseases and bugs among the foothills’ pine and chaparral, have turned the area into a “tinderbox,” Goodell said.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

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. and 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. I guess I’ll know tomorrow, 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, barely able to see the road in front of them through the smoke.

Trace Robie, a housewife 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.

A Red Cross shelter for displaced residents was set up at Jacobsen Middle School in Tehachapi. By late Tuesday, only 11 people had checked in, said shelter manager Leonard Arends.

Arends, who lives in Tehachapi, described the Old West Ranch area as a mix of mobile homes and large new stucco homes surrounded by heavy pine and oak brush. He said the residents are a close-knit group of people, many of them retirees.

In northern Kern County, a wildfire in Sequoia National Forest burned more than 11,000 acres, or 17 square miles. It earlier destroyed six homes and forced the evacuation of a camp for juvenile offenders near Kernville. It was five percent contained.

The cause of the blaze, which began Monday, is under investigation.

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

In far northeastern California, crews have 80% containment of lightning fires that have burned 250 acres of timber in Lassen County.