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Kern County fire evacuees wonder what will be left

As 3,000 firefighters battled two blazes, residents of one community, holed up in temporary shelters, feared the worst for their off-the-grid homes.

July 29, 2010|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Tehachapi

Wayne Butchko hadn't seen his double-wide trailer in 24 hours, but he was pretty sure it was gone — a casualty of the brushfire that swept through a rustic subdivision beyond the reach of power lines and water pipes.

"We all lived off the grid up there," said Butchko, a 53-year-old truck driver who camped Wednesday with his dogs Cocoa and Feather outside a shelter at a Tehachapi junior high school. "There was nothing like it anywhere."

Authorities were unsure exactly how many people lived at the Old West Ranch, a hilly, isolated neighborhood laced with dirt lanes and dotted with solar panels. An evacuation was ordered for about 150 homes but, as Butchko described it, "not everyone had addresses."

The 1,436-acre West fire has destroyed 30 to 40 structures and was 25% contained Wednesday, authorities said. A second wildfire in northern Kern and Tulare counties — the Bull fire — has burned about 15,982 acres and destroyed eight homes and six other structures since Monday. It was 12% contained, firefighters said.

The worst destruction occurred when the West fire struck Old West Ranch, about 10 miles southeast of Tehachapi.

On Wednesday, Butchko, a four-year resident of the neighborhood, was starting to deal with the possibility that the home he had fled — leaving even his dentures — was no more.

"I saw the flames coming and it was panic time," he recalled, sitting in the shade and stroking a woolen blanket that had just been given to him by a stranger. "My truck was out of gas. I ran with my dogs as fast as I could and when I tripped, I saw a tree just behind me ignite and explode."

The beetle-ravaged pines in the area were "matchsticks." Fire officials said that brush in the area hadn't burned in at least a century.

Butchko made it to a road, hitched a ride, cleaned up at a friend's house, and found shelter at the school.

Sandy McCain, a local Salvation Army worker, said she was one of more than a dozen people who spent the night under the stars, sleeping with their dogs. Inside, about half a dozen displaced residents bedded down on cots in the school gym.

She had heard some sad stories. One man who lost his home grieved over the things that had belonged to his son, who died a couple of years ago. A couple's 7-year-old was crying, inconsolable.

But people in the town of about 6,500 had opened their hearts. Some residents loaded their pickups with bottled water and dropped it off at the school. Restaurants provided free food. People came by laden with toiletries, stuffed animals, bedding — the kind of things that will be valuable as burned-out people rebuild their households.

But some were more fortunate.

As a funnel of smoke rose over the mountains, ash-smeared Barbara Grantham walked down to the end of her driveway, jubilant.

"Praise Lord!" she cried.

The home she shares with her husband, Buzz, had been spared, though a couple of sheds, including one with his Marine Corps memorabilia, were destroyed.

Barbara Grantham, the retired head of protocol at Edwards Air Force Base, said her husband had cut down a swath of oaks and pines around their house, in addition to getting rid of brush. Even a treehouse that was a project of their grown children was saved, though flames licked around the trunk.

Other homes also were untouched, with hummingbirds still hovering at feeders as smoke wafted from crackling ruins just yards away.

About 3,000 firefighters, equipped with at least 18 aerial tankers and support planes, battled both fires Wednesday. So far, two firefighters have been hurt in the Bull fire, which started Monday in Sequoia National Forest. One suffered an eye injury, the other sustained moderate burns.

Sean Collins, a spokesman for the Kern County Fire Department, said the causes of both fires are under investigation, although the Bull fire is believed to be human-caused.

As firefighters battled the fast-moving flames, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for Kern County on Tuesday, freeing up state resources to battle the blazes.

"We've been lucky so far this summer," Schwarzenegger said. "But the season is here as you can see."

Back at Old West Ranch at the bottom of the Granthams' driveway, local pastor Doug Cowan had set up a table with coffee and doughnuts for firefighters and residents.

Cowan, of Country Oaks Baptist Church in Tehachapi, said several hotels in town had offered evacuees a free place to stay Tuesday night, and restaurants stayed open late to accommodate them. About 2,500 people have been evacuated in the West fire.

"Just about everyone is trying to help," he said.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Times staff writer Dan Weikel contributed to this report.

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