- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 28, 2010

TEHACHAPI | Firefighters gained ground Wednesday against the most destructive of two big wildfires that have burned dozens of 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 burned 30 to 40 homes in the Old West Ranch community about 10 miles south of Tehachapi was 25 percent contained, the Kern County Fire Department said. Some 150 homes in the loosely connected community remained threatened.

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. No other homes were in immediate danger.


Officials were investigating what caused the fires.

The fire in Old West Ranch broke out Tuesday afternoon and carved a path of destruction. At one site, a house had collapsed upon itself. At another property, only a singed wooden banister 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.”

The area is known for strong winds that sweep through the mountains and rake the desert floor. Electricity-producing wind farms line nearby ridges. The turbine blades stood still early Wednesday. But as the day progressed, the blades slowly began turning.

The winds rise as the sun burns off a dewy inversion layer of cooler air, and that could cause the fires to flare up, said Jeff Barlow, a senior forecaster with the National Weather Service in Hanford.

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

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.

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.