Image: Fire at Old West Ranch
Alex Gallardo  /  AP
A helicopter drops water on the fire at Old West Ranch, Calif., on Wednesday.
updated 7/29/2010 5:03:59 AM ET 2010-07-29T09:03:59

Hundreds of firefighters gained ground Wednesday against the most destructive of two big wildfires that have burned homes and forced 2,300 people to evacuate mountain communities on the edge of the Mojave Desert and in the southern Sierra Nevada.

A 1,400-acre blaze that chased residents from the Old West Ranch community about 10 miles south of Tehachapi was 25 percent contained.

The firefighting command revised the number of destroyed structures down to 25, and Kern County Fire Department Battalion Chief Dean Boller said most were homes.

Fire officials initially estimated 30 to 40 homes were lost. Another 150 homes in the loosely connected community remained threatened.

The area is usually so gusty that wind farms line ridges, but Wednesday afternoon the weather was cooperating with the 800 firefighters on the lines, producing only light breezes.

Patches of brush burned among spinning windmills at one energy site, but firefighters were keeping them contained and there appeared to be no damage.

'Absolute chaos'
Winds were expected to increase to 15 mph later in the day, but Boller said firefighters had yet to see the kind of gusts that drove the fire the previous day.

"It was absolute chaos," he said. "It is very, very overgrown. There's so much dead and downed fuel out there — we knew we were in trouble."

Boller, who turned over command of the incident to a state fire official on Wednesday, said the area had no reported fire history.

"It probably hasn't burned in over 100 years," he said.

Overnight, the fire ran through the crowns of trees, sending flames 150 feet into the sky, said Kelly Zombro, the new incident commander.

At a Red Cross evacuation center in Tehachapi, Sarah DeSmet, 22, of Los Angeles cuddled a dusty black kitten she had pulled out of the rubble at the home of her uncle, George Plesko, who looked dazed as volunteers tried to get him to eat lunch.

"My uncle called my mom to say his final goodbyes" because he didn't think he would get out alive, DeSmet said.

Part of the fire in the eastern foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains, about 70 miles north of Los Angeles, was sending up a large plume of smoke, while other areas only smoldered.

About 40 miles to the north, a fire that began Monday in Sequoia National Forest grew to 15,600 acres, or about 24 square miles, and was only 5 percent surrounded after burning eight homes and six outbuildings in the area of Kernville, a launching point for mountain adventuring.

About 1,200 homes and structures scattered in the fire area were considered threatened, but Bureau of Land Management information officer Michell Puckett said that did not mean they were in immediate dangers.

Path of destruction
Rafting companies, which normally take vacationers on trips down the Kern River, were being used to ferry firefighters to parts of the blaze that were otherwise inaccessible, Puckett said.

Officials were investigating what caused the fires.

The fire in Old West Ranch broke out Tuesday and carved a path of destruction. At one site, a house had collapsed upon itself. At another property, only a singed wooden bannister was left standing.

Lane Butchko, a retired resident without a car, recounted desperately fleeing a half-mile down a mountain road before a motorist picked him up.

"I grabbed my dog and we ran for our lives. I forgot my teeth," he said. "We were going at a full gallop and halfway down I fell, tripped on the dog's leash. When I got up, I felt the heat of the fire on my back and I saw a tree burst into flames."

Years of drought in the Tehachapi area, along with tree diseases and bugs among the foothills' pine and chaparral, have turned the area into a "tinderbox," said county fire Battalion Chief David Goodell.

'Off the grid'
Peggy Pingry, who has lived in Old West Ranch for 25 years with her husband, said people are drawn to the remote area by the solitude, freedom to do what they like on their property, and the wildlife.

"Nobody up there is rich, well, maybe one person. Everyone's retired or working, with some people on limited incomes," she said. "They're all self-sufficient and happy to be alone and off the grid."

In the parking lot of the evacuation center, Robert Tipton, 67, tried to soothe his dog, Poppy, who barked and whined inside a metal crate.

Tipton said Poppy's barking was his first warning of the fire Tuesday afternoon.

"The next thing I knew, the fire department was up there and I was on the way down the hill towards town, hoping to pick up my things later," he said. "I found out last night that we've lost all our property. I don't know what to say. It's going to be hard, but we'll survive all this."

Meanwhile, firefighters made progress against the largest of more than 150 lighting-sparked fires in northeastern California. The 250-acre blaze east of Straylor Lake in the Lassen National Forest was expected to be fully contained by the end of the day, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

An additional 187 fires were burning in other remote parts of Lassen County and in Plumas, Siskiyou, Shasta and Modoc counties. Most were less than an acre and were contained.

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Video: Crews gain ground on Calif. fires

  1. Transcript of: Crews gain ground on Calif. fires

    ANN CURRY, anchor: OK. Calmer winds in the news today, everybody. Calmer winds and cooler temperatures today should help in the massive effort against those wildfires that have destroyed now two dozen homes in California since Tuesday. We've got NBC 's Kristen Welker , who is in Tehachapi , California , where the worst of the fires are -- is burning. Kristen , good morning.

    KRISTEN WELKER reporting: Well, good morning to you, Ann. And firefighters are feeling somewhat optimistic this morning because as you mentioned, those winds died down overnight, which allowed them to make some real progress in battling two wildfires here in Kern County . But both of those wildfires are still only partially contained. So they are gearing up for another very busy day. Overnight, firefighters continued to battle the fast-moving blaze in Tehachapi , 70 miles north of Los Angeles . The fire started Tuesday and moved so quickly some residents, like George Plesko , barely made it out alive.

    Mr. GEORGE PLESKO: I watched two of my neighbors' houses burn before I got back to my place. And my place was fully engulfed so I just left. You know, it's all I could do.

    WELKER: Plesko came back to total devastation, his house burned down, a lifetime lost. Hundreds of firefighters are working around the clock to try to prevent more pain. They attacked the blaze by air and from the ground but they were met

    with tough conditions. Firefighters have had three big challenges: erratic winds, steep terrain and very dry conditions. And a second blaze is burning fiercely to the north in the Sequoia National Forest , also destroying several homes. The dual fires leading Governor Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency. For George Plesko there was one bright spot amidst his tragedy.

    Mr. PLESKO: Come here. Kitty, kitty, kitty.

    WELKER: One of this cats survived, and right now, Plesko and his neighbors are holding on to these moments for hope.

    Mr. PLESKO: Come here.

    WELKER: Now, there are still a number of structures that are in the fire's path here in Kern County , so it's still a touch and go situation. At this point both fires are still under investigation. Ann , back to you.

    CURRY: OK, Kristen Welker , thank you so much .

Photos: Wildfires blaze

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  1. A DC-10 jumbo jet tanker drops retardant on top of the crest of Hauser Peak to protect microwave towers in Palmadale, Calif., from a wildfire on Friday, July 30. A huge wildfire churned through high desert wilderness north of Los Angeles, destroying a few buildings and forcing people from about 2,000 homes. Most of the displaced residents were allowed to return as the threat eased. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Firefighters and sheriff deputies retreat quickly as flames approach Elizabeth Lake Road in Leona Valley as a fast moving wildfire nears Palmdale on Thursday. (Dan Steinberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Fire rages behind the Lazy T Ranch on Elizabeth Lake Road west of Palmdale Calif. on Thursday. About 2,000 homes in the community of Leona Valley and parts of Palmdale areas were under evacuation Friday, according to Los Angeles County Fire. (Dave Mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A U.S. Forest Service firefighter sets an intentional backfire to keep flames away from homes in Leona Valley, just west of Palmdale. (Mike Meadows / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A firefighter looks on as a fast moving wildfire approaches Elizabeth Lake Road in the Leona Valley near Palmdale on Thursday. (Dan Steinberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Engine companies line up along Lake Elizabeth Road at dusk Thursday. The fire, one of two major fires to break out in the same area, has roared through at least a thousand acres. (Mike Meadows / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Fire personnel inspect the remains of a house destroyed by wild fires in Kern County, California, on Wednesday, July 28. Two wildfires have burned dozens of homes and forced more than 2,000 people to evacuate mountain communities on the edge of the Mojave Desert and in the southern Sierra Nevada. (Mike Meadows / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A vehicle and structures destroyed by wild fires in Kern County, California, on Wednesday, July 28. (Mike Meadows / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A helicopter drops water on the wildfire at Old West Ranch where residents were evacuated and about 30 to 40 homes were lost near Tehachapi, Calif., Wednesday, July 28. (Alex Gallardo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A house burns on Tuesday, July 27, near Tehachapi, Calif. Over 40 homes were destroyed in the Old West Ranch fire on Tuesday. (Sean Work / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. An inmate crew marches to the fire at Old West Ranch near Tehachapi, Calif., Wednesday, July 28. (Alex Gallardo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Fires rage in Kern County, Calif., on Tuesday, July 27, on the edge of the Mojave Desert. (Mike Meadows / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A house burns on Tuesday, July 27, near Tehachapi, Calif. Over 40 homes were destroyed in the Old West Ranch fire. (Dave Mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A mule deer and her fawn make their way through a burnt out canyon at the Old West Ranch were residents were evacuated and about 30 to 40 homes have been lost to a wildfire near Tehachapi, Calif., Wednesday, July 28. (Alex Gallardo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A huge column of smoke from the Old West Ranch fire can be seen from the highway near Tehachapi, Calif., Tuesday, July 27. (Mike Meadows / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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