Special Sections : West Fire

Friday, Mar 04 2011 11:48 AM

No jail time for fire starters

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Felix Adamo/ The CalifornianA house in the West Fire in Tehachapi burns to the ground 5 miles above Highline Road. About 40 homes have been destroyed in tthe fire.

The men accused of starting the Old West Ranch fire will not spend time in prison.

Daniel Gentle, 47, and Michael Kulikoff, 24, each pleaded no contest Feb. 18 to a misdemeanor charge of operating a device that kindled a fire, according to the Kern County Superior Court website. Felony charges of causing fire to an inhabited structure were dismissed. Each man paid $515 in fines and was given three years probation, court records show.

Gentle and Kulikoff were using a mechanized saw July 27, 2010, to cut steel pipe in the 16600 block of Blackburn Canyon Road when sparks ignited nearby brush, authorities have said.

The ensuing blaze destroyed 23 homes and 41 outbuildings in the rural area, fire officials reported. Another eight homes and six outbuildings were damaged. More than 1,600 acres were burned.

“Look at all the hundreds of thousands of dollars that were spent extinguishing that fire,” said Merle Carnes, president of the local homeowners' association, “and the hundreds of thousands spent trying to put these folks back into some sort of half-decent living conditions. That upsets me.”

Carnes and local resident Theresa Wagner didn't lose their houses in the fire, but they know plenty of the people who did.

Most of the displaced residents are living in temporary shelters or mobile homes on their original properties, Carnes said. Some are working on rebuilding their houses.

Both women noted Salvation Army's financial support in providing temporary homes in Old West Ranch. “They're the most wonderful group in the world,” Carnes said.

At least one of the structures in the area was donated by Bakersfield construction company Rimer Homes, Wagner said.

She added that her job as a physical education instructor in the Tehachapi Unified School District served as a gateway to additional help from the community.

“All I had to do was open my mouth, and needs were met,” she said. “Everybody in this town has been so generous.”

That generosity has eased some of the angst associated with the fire's origins, but not all of it. Winds in the area still stir up ashes from the blaze, Wagner said. And some residents, constantly reminded by the blackened earth around them, were left with nothing as a result of the men's actions.

“It's a shame that, because of their ignorance, so many people lost their homes,” Wagner said.

It seems their optimism, however, still remains.

“Loving, caring people have done so much,” Carnes said. “It's a wonderful community. People are happy and uplifted. For the most part, everything is good.

“Things happen. You have to go on. You have to be positive. You have to move forward.”

Jeff Goodman is a staff writer for the Bakersfield Californian where this story first appeared.

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