Two men were issued misdemeanor citations Saturday for starting a nearly 1,700-acre fire that has devastated homes and charred landscape in the quiet community of Old West Ranch, fire officials said.
Investigators cited Daniel Gentle 47, and Michael Kulikoff 23, for starting a fire using mechanized equipment. They had permission to be on the property at 16650 Blackburn Canyon Road, where they were cutting steel pipe with a mechanical saw, which gave off sparks that started the fire, according to a release from the Kern County Fire Department.
The fire burned 1,658 acres and was fully contained by Sunday, Aug. 1, a CalFire news release stated.
According to CalFire, 23 "primary residences" were destroyed and eight were damaged.
"Primary residences" refers to houses, trailers, or other structures in which people lived.
In addition, 41 other objects or structures - including boats, vehicles or trailers - were destroyed, and six more were damaged.
One firefigher suffered an injury that was "very minor," CalFire Public Information Officer John Buchanan said. There were no reports of injuries to residents.
All Old West Ranch residents have been allowed to return to their properties as of noon Friday, July 30.
An American Red Cross evacuation shelter set up at the old Jacobsen Junior High on Snyder Street was changed into a service center where fire victims can receive food, water, hygienic products and pet care.
A meeting to discuss how to aid victims of the fire was expected to be held at the Veteran of Foreign Wars Hall at 221 W. Tehachapi Blvd. Monday, Aug. 2, at 5 pm.
As of Saturday morning, there were approximately 800 personnel fighting the fire and assisting victims, including the Kern County Fire Department, CalFire, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, California Department of Corrections, Los Angeles County Fire Department, California Emergency Management Agency Bakersfield Fire Department, Ventura County Fire Department, Kern County Sheriff's Department, Tehachapi Police Department, California Highway Patrol and American Red Cross.
In all, 33 agencies have helped fight the fire. The Tehachapi High School parking lot has served as the command center for local and visiting emergency personnel.
A Type 1 CalFire management team became the lead agency for the incident Wednesday morning, July 29.
Kern County Fire Batallion Chief Dean Boller said there had been no reported fire history in the Blackburn Canyon area, suggesting there hadn't been a fire in that location for "at least 100 years."
Alternating wind directions made the fire difficult to combat, Boller said.
The wind's direction changed "three or four times," creating a "very dynamic situation," Boller said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency and addressed media members at Tehachapi High School Wednesday afternoon, July 29.
Evacuee's story points to cause
On Wednesday morning, July 28, American Red Cross shelter manager John Allen said there were far more volunteers at the shelter than evacuees.
The Salvation Army Center Director Marget Willer said many local businesses had donated food to the shelter: Kelcy's, Hungry Howie's, The Apple Shed, Albertsons, Tehachapi Liquor (donated soda and chips), Jake's Steakhouse, McDonald's, Quizno's, Subway and others.
Only one evacuee opted to sleep in the shelter the first night, while others slept in their vehicles in the parking lot with their pets. Pets were not allowed inside the shelter.
“I lost it all and some of my animals died,” said weary, red-eyed George Plesko at the evacuation center Tuesday. “Mine's burnt to the ground. I watched my 5,000 gallon tank burst open. I watched my house, my barn, my doolie trucks burn to the ground. I got out of there.”
Plesko's home was on Snowshoe Court.
The tremendous turnout of community support at the evacuation center - including a spaghetti dinner from the Apple Shed - helped the hurt.
“People have been amazing,” said Plesko's girlfriend Sandy McDaniel. “It floored me and I needed this.”
Plesko said he was the first to respond to the fire after noticing smoke at just after 2 p.m. and was the first to dial 911.
“It was a small grass fire,” he said. “We were fighting it with a shovel.”
Plesko said three men who live on property nearby known as Raus Circle were cutting scrap metal with a grinder in dry grass with only a five-gallon bucket of water for safety.
“The cutoff wheel was throwing sparks everywhere, in the weeds,” he said.
Plesko's errand of the previous day saved a huge chunk of Tehachapi history from the ravages of the fire. He had been custodian of a collection of historic Tehachapi photo negatives for decades.
“I took the 12,000 negatives to (Tehachapi News columnist and historian) Jon Hammond yesterday,” Plesko said.
Robert Tipton lost a chicken coop and part of a barn at his home near Summers Drive.
Tipton was staying in the shelter as of Wednesday morning. He said he didn't think he had lost his home to the fire.
"I might be real fortunate," Tipton said. "I still can't realize it really happened."
Tipton, who said he was "just a little bit hurt inside," added he "woke up today in a new world."
He said he was amazed at how many people were willing to help victims of the fire.
"All of these people ... " Tipton said. "They went out of their way to help us."