The shelter at the old Jacobsen Jr. High in Tehachapi had three to four times as many volunteers as evacuees Wednesday morning as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for Kern County, freeing up state resources to fight wind-whipped wildfires. Two separate blazes are still under investigation.
Close to 20,000 acres have burned near the town of about 13,000, which is 40 miles south of Bakersfield. Tehachapi is known for its wind farm, a maximum security prison, proximity to Edwards Air Force Base, and air drafts that make for excellent hang-gliding.
Instead of hang gliders, helicopters and planes are crisscrossing the air overhead, dropping water and fire retardant. Out of control at 7 a.m. local time, the fire was declared 25 percent contained by 11 a.m. with a reported 200 to 300 fire fighters and four aerial tankers at the scene. As many as 40 homes are reported destroyed and another 150 structures threatened. A camp for juvenile offenders also had to be evacuated.
“It’s affecting the people of this town pretty badly,” says Chris George, managing editor of the Tehachapi News, a weekly newspaper. “They know this could completely shred the community.” He says the issue has totally subsumed every other topic. ‘My wife works in a hospital in Bakersfield,” says Mr. George. “And she said that’s all they talked about last night.”
Some 2,300 residents have evacuated, but George says it’s hard to tell the level of emergency because it’s likely many stayed with friends rather than spending the night at the American Red Cross shelter set up at the junior high school.
“This is a very tight-knit town,” he says. Local Facebook pages are devoted to offering shelter for dogs, cats, horses, and other animals trying to escape the moving flames.
“It’s interesting and gratifying to see the community come together and help each other like this in an emergency,” George says.
Amy Doyal feels the same way after having moved to the area from Missouri six months ago.
“This fire is very sobering. We have fires in Missouri, but nothing like this. Everyone is pulling together. It’s really awesome to see,” says the employee of Mountain Music on Robinson Steet in the middle of town.
She said she was driving back from the Tehachapi Mountains Tuesday night and saw the black smoke turning bright red with the explosions of propane tanks. She arrived to discover that a friend lost her home and everything she owned. “This is bringing tears to my eyes,” she says.
Fire engines and bulldozers from several counties are pitching in to stop the fire, which has been estimated at two miles wide on one side. Michelle Puckett, a spokeswoman for the US Bureau of Land Management, told CNN she's "heard reports that [one of the fires] might be human caused."
Natural air movement and dry vegetation are fueling the blazes.
The testimonies of several victims pepper the local papers:
"I could feel the heat on my back," Wayne Butchko told the Bakersfield Californian, describing what it was like to escape from his home, leaving everything behind except his dogs Feather and Coco. "I could see the flames, and the trees were just popping with explosions," he said.