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.
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.