Jack Smith woke up to the blast of a propane tank.

By the time he stepped out the front door of his Wofford Heights home, he could see the two houses next door burning, black smoke pluming into the air and ashes raining overhead.

Then, within seconds, he felt the rumble of an air tanker buzz his home, dusting pink flame retardant over his neighborhood.

“If these guys weren’t on it, my house would have been gone,” Smith said Monday afternoon while sipping a Miller High Life at Harry’s Bar, a Wofford Heights watering hole just down the hill from where the Calgary Fire began burning Saturday evening, charring nine homes and 50 acres.

Those living in the Kern River Valley are no strangers to fire. Hillsides burn frequently, and ever since last summer, when the Erskine Fire ripped through more than 47,000 acres and scorched hundreds of homes, residents have been on heightened alert.

Rapid response to the Calgary Fire, however, may have saved hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of wild land from the blaze. Residents Monday said it seemed like fire crews “learned their lesson” from the Erskine Fire.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered almost immediately after it was reported that a vehicle driving with a flat tire sparked a brush fire near Evans and Calgary roads. 

“We’re always learning. That’s just a fact. We threw everything we had at it,” said Kern County Fire Department Capt. Jason Knaggs, who described the Calgary Fire as a “worst-case scenario.”

There were lots of fuel, a densely populated area and gusty winds that had the potential to drive flames up and down slopes, Knaggs said. Seven helicopters and seven air tankers were deployed immediately along with ground crews.

The result? They were able to hold the fire to 50 acres, despite uncooperative weather and a bleak outlook. Knaggs said it had the potential to be more destructive than the Erskine Fire.

By Monday afternoon, fire crews were resting beside engines, enjoying ice water left out for them by thankful residents and keeping their eyes open for any hot spots that could flare up again.

Mylee Larsen was in town when the fire broke out, but her 8-year-old son was still at home with her sister. At first, he was exicted by all the commotion, firefighters and powerful helicopters, Larsen said, then a propane tank exploded.

“Then he got really scared,” Larsen said. She hiked up Evans Road, but was turned back when flames began consuming trees on both sides of the road.

“The whole street was on fire. There was no way for me to get to my son,” Larsen said.

Of the nine homes lost, one belonged to John Miller, who lives in Ventura, but kept his house in Wofford Heights as a vacation home, said Becky McTigue, a friend of his who owns a vintage store down the hill from the fire.

Miller, wary of his home being lost after watching the destruction of the Erskine Fire last year, emptied his home of most valuables months ago, McTigue said.

The fires had shaken him, as it had others, she said.

Smith said he plans on selling his home, which is only accessible through a one-way street.

“I got worries about the road. It’s too dangerous.” he said. “It was way too close. I opened my door and the fire was coming up to my truck.”

At Harry’s, Smith griped with the bartender and regulars about $1,500 fines leveled against homeowners for not keeping their grass and vegetation trim while some county and state-owned land goes unkempt.

“This place has been on fire seven years,” Smith said. “Every year it catches on fire and every time it comes closer. I keep telling Molly, 'It’s going to be our turn one of these days.'”

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

(1) comment

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