Two wind-whipped fires in dense brush along the Kern River between Manor Street and Highway 99 kept city and county firefighters and law enforcement crews scrambling Thursday afternoon.
The first fire started at around 2 p.m. in brush along the Kern River near the city’s San Miguel Commemorative Grove at Manor Street and Denise Avenue, said Kern County Fire Department spokesman Corey Wilford.
The 20-acre blaze, fanned by the gusty winds that whipped through Bakersfield during the day, spread out east and west along the river, engulfed brush on islands in the middle of the dry riverbed and then jumped to the north side of the river.
It rained down burning embers on a complex of horse stables as firefighters rushed to push it back, and volunteers and workers at the stables rushed to move the animals away from the blaze.
Greg Battles said he hurried to the stables, where his wife keeps horses, when he saw the column of smoke from his property on Edison Highway.
As firefighters blasted the core of the blaze with streams of water from the Manor Street bridge, Battles worked under an orange haze of smoke, using a shovel to toss dirt on smoldering piles of ash and manure inside a pen.
At one point the wind curled itself into a tight, black tornado-like formation hundreds of feet high — drawing smoke and burning embers into the air.
Smoke-devils like that, Battle said, were what dumped the burning embers on the stable complex.
“We didn’t need the wind today,” he said.
Wilford agreed and encouraged people to be very cautious with fire hazards in these tough conditions.
“We’re having some erratic behavior. This has been a very challenging fire. It’s been very resource-intensive,” Wilford said.
Around 100 firefighters and their equipment fought the blaze, he said.
Battle said fires have been starting in the area a lot and blamed the blazes on homeless camp set up in the river.
Wilford acknowledged that there was a blaze in that same general location on Saturday. But he said the cause of Thursday’s blazes were still under investigation. He said individuals walking in the area had been stopped by fire investigators from the city and the county for questioning.
But, he said Thursday evening, “No arrest has been made.”
“We don’t even know if it’s arson at this time,” Wilford said.
The second blaze began two miles down the river near Highway 99 about an hour after firefighters launched their attack against the first blaze.
It burned in the river right behind the Bakersfield Heart Hospital, but a canal running between the buildings and the riverbed provided a buffer from the flames, witnesses said.
“It’s very close to the hospital, but fortunately we have the canal,” said Michelle Oxford, vice president of business development.
From her office in a medical building, Oxford said she could feel the heat and see a helicopter collecting water from the canal to douse the flames. She said she notice the fire at about 2:45 p.m.
It started right behind the Emergency Room Department and spread down the riverbed toward Highway 99, she said.
“The smoke is the worst part,”Oxford said.
Though the flames were close, the hospital did not have to evacuate patients, she said.
“We’re safe and it looks like it’s pretty much contained right now,” she said at about 4:30 p.m.