Cooler temperatures, calmer winds help firefighters gain ground on California fires

Cooler temperatures and calmer winds helped firefighters in their battle against the most destructive of two big wildfires that have burned homes and forced hundreds of people to evacuate mountain communities on the edge of the Mojave Desert and in the southern Sierra Nevada.

A 1,436-acre blaze that chased residents from the Old West Ranch community about 10 miles south of Tehachapi was 25 percent contained Wednesday. If the weather continued to cooperate, officials expected to have it fully contained by Friday, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman John Buchanan said.

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. 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 784 firefighters on the lines, producing only light breezes.

Barbara Grantham was handing out doughnuts, lemonade, iced tea and cold water to anyone who passed by her driveway in Blackburn Canyon.

She said her family's $25,000 solar power system survived as well as her home, but a couple storage structures and tool sheds were lost to the fire. "With our faith we understand that those are temporary things, but I did save a photo of my mom," she said.

When she and her husband bought the property in 1992 they didn't know about the fire danger, she said. The price was right but they put in thousands of dollars of improvements — a pump on the well, a couple of outbuildings and the solar power system.

"You can't get fire insurance here. It's a high fire threat area. If you can get it, it's pricey and doesn't cover the fire," she said.

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 15,982 acres, or about 24 square miles, and was 12 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 Michelle Puckett said that did not mean they were in immediate danger.

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.

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.

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 fully contained, 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.