The West Fire

Tuesday afternoon, July 27, at around 2:40 pm, I headed into town to do my volunteering at the library. But I got no more than around 300 yards down the road, when I saw smoke from a fire off to the right. A couple of trucks were parked along the road, and a fire truck was just arriving. Merle, our Property Owners Association President, was parked on the other side of the road. She told me to go back and park alongside the road—they wanted to leave the road clear for firefighters. She said someone had been clearing brush, and a spark from his equipment had started a fire. At the time, it was still confined to that one property, but the fire was clearly getting bigger even as we talked. She kept one eye on the blaze, and saw flames shoot 30 feet high!

I told her I would just turn around and go home, which I did. I called my mom next door to let her know what was happening, then called the library to tell them I wouldn’t be coming.

Not long after that, one of our neighbors and volunteer firefighter, George, came by to tell us to evacuate. The fire was getting out of control and we needed to get out. So I called my mom again and we started hurriedly packing. I threw my laptop/iPod/books/bandages into bags and a lot of random clothes into my suitcase. I told mom to bring her stuff and her cat down to my place, and I’d fix a cardboard box with holes in the top for her to use as a carrier for her cat. I needed to do that for one of my cats, too, since she’d outgrown her carrier ages ago and I’d never gotten around to getting a new one. I continued packing and soon Mom arrived with her cat, Buddy.

Then George came back. “We have to go right now! Take what you’ve got and let’s go!” I hadn’t quite finished gathering things together, but I stopped packing to concentrate on getting the cats into their carriers and boxes. Mom says she told George, “She’s not going to leave without her cats.” As quickly as we could, we put my little pile of belongings into the truck with the cats, and then Mom and I followed George up the road to a big, cleared field where we parked our car and truck. We waited there while George went to get Merle and decide whether we were going to stay there, where it was relatively safe, or try to get out. The main road out was completely blocked by the fire now. We wouldn’t be getting out that way. We could see huge billows of gray smoke just down the road. I couldn’t tell if it had started approaching my place. But it didn’t look good.

West Fire, Kern County

George came back with Merle, who was insisting that she had to make sure everyone was warned about the fire. George asked if I had 4-wheel-drive on my truck, which I do, so he said we could take my truck and follow him out via a side road, or stay where we were and wait it out. Mom and I agreed we’d rather try to get out, so we started moving her stuff into my truck while Merle went to make a last run up the road. We ended up with four unhappy cats behind the seats in the cab, and our luggage in the truck bed.

Then George and Merle came back, and we started following George’s truck up a narrow, twisty, steep dirt road that took off up the side of the mountain.

We met three or four trucks along the way coming down the hill. George stopped to warn them they couldn’t get out that way, the fire was spreading, and they should turn around and go back. I don’t know if any of them did. We eased past them and kept climbing, stopping whenever we passed a house or trailer to see if anyone was there and make sure they knew about the fire.

Eventually, we came to a spot where the road made a sharp right turn uphill, with deep, loose sand at the bottom. George’s truck was skipping in the sand as it crept up the hill. I had had my truck in 4HI, but I stopped and shifted to 4LO before I followed. My traction held and we made it just fine. Whew! Love my Chevy S-1o.

I’d never been up that way before. It was scary and nerve-wracking under the circumstances, but there were some beautiful views from way up there. We stopped at a turnout near the top, where we could see back down to the fire. Huge plumes of black smoke thousands of feet high filled the canyon as the fire swept down towards town. George asked if he could borrow my camera to take a few shots. “I can see my house about to go up in flames.”

He took a picture of a firefighting plane overhead, then a few shots of the fire.

West Fire, Kern County

West Fire, Kern County

The wind was to the north, blowing the fire down the canyon towards town. My place was to the south, behind a ridge. I couldn’t tell whether the fire had reached it or not.

We continued on. Eventually, we reached the East Gate and headed down the other side of the mountain. The fire had shifted east and was headed in our general direction. George pointed out a dirt road down the mountain coming out at Willow Springs Road. “That’s where we’ll come out—if the fire doesn’t get there first. We’d better hurry!”

As we got closer to the valley floor, we started meeting fire trucks and water tankers on their way up, trying to build a perimeter to stop the fire from spreading east. We stopped at one house, where people were hosing down the house in hopes of protecting it from the fire. George said he wanted to stay there and help, but he drove us down to a “Y” in the road before settling Merle in the back of our truck with some coats and a pillow. Then he headed back, and the three of us continued on to Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road.

Merle was frantic to go back to the North Gate to try to find her husband, who’d been in town when the fire broke out, and wouldn’t know his wife had made it out safely. But we were already half-way to my brother’s place, my mom was worn out, and the kitties had been cooped up in their carriers for over an hour, so I told her I’d take her to my brother’s house first,  drop off Mom and the cats, and then I’d take her wherever she wanted to go.

Once on the highway, it was smooth sailing to my brother’s house. Just before we got to the Cameron Canyon turnoff, we came out the other side of a roadblock. Looked like there’d be no going back that way. We could still see the plumes of smoke in the sky from my brother’s house.

No one was home at my brother’s place, but we hauled in our stuff and started making some phone calls. I’d left my cell phone at home—it was plugged in, recharging the battery—so we used my brother’s phone to call him and let him know we were safe. Then I gave the phone to Merle to try to get in touch with her husband, or someone who could find him and let him know she was all right. We started getting bits and pieces of news from people farther down the canyon where the fire had spread. Already, some houses had been lost, and the phone lines were down. We were all a bit shell-shocked, but I brought in our things from the truck. I lined the kitties’ carriers up in the living room and gave them each water. We’d wait until my brother came home to decide where to stash each of them.

Merle called a friend who came to pick her up. Then it was just Mom and me, waiting for my brother to come home. Once he’d arrived, we started arranging the cats. We kept moving them around the whole time we were there, trying to find good spots for all of them. We started out with Socks and Jerry in the utility room, Buddy in a big dog crate in front of the guest house, and Spot in a large rabbit hutch. But Spot was freaking out in there because of all the other cats and dogs milling around, so I took him into the guest house with us. I’d been worried about him escaping through one of the window screens or pushing his way out the screen door, which fastened only from the inside with a hook. But we put a clay pot in front of the screen door to block it when we were outside, and Spot showed no sign of wanting to escape, anyway. He spent most of his time hiding under the cot where I slept, except when I was there to reassure him.

Mom’s cat, Buddy, spent the first night in the crate, but it was too small for him plus his food and water and a litter box. We tried him in the rabbit hutch, but he and his food were attacked by ants, so we ended up bringing him into the guest house bathroom, where he stayed for the rest of the time. He was fine in there, except for meowing all night long wanting to come out and visit Mom. She’d go in and sit with him for a while and then he’d stop meowing so much.

Socks seemed all right in the utility room at first, hiding in her carrier or in the box I’d brought Jerry in, turned on its side. But after a while, she started hiding behind the door, cramming herself in as tight as she could, and I was afraid she’d get smashed back there, or get her toes crushed or something, so I hauled her out and we ended up putting her in the little TV room off the utility room. It was quieter and more secluded in there. I put the dog crate in there, too, and put her in it at night for added security. I made her a litter box with dirt in it, because she likes dirt better than clay litter. She’d pee in the dirt, bury it deep, then sleep on top of it. Whatever works, little kitty!

Jerry seemed okay some of the time, but a lot of the time she just wanted to hide. She spent the first night in the cupboard over the washing machine in the utility room. Then she seemed okay hanging out on the floor for a while, but then they started leaving the door to the utility room open for air, and Jerry disappeared into the rest of the house. She was in the bathroom behind the toilet for a while, then, sometime Thursday she went missing. I was pretty sure she was in the house somewhere, but wasn’t completely sure she hadn’t gotten out, so that was worrisome. Didn’t finally find her until we were getting ready to go home Friday morning. I started digging around under their bed, moving things around until my hand ran into some fur. I dragged her out and put her in the TV room with Socks to wait until we were ready to pack them up to go. Whew! Kitties all present and accounted for!

Other than worry about the cats, we just hung around my brother’s place, played with their cats, watched the news, read, and I played with my laptop. I had very good luck getting some dragons I wanted for lineage projects on Dragon Cave.

Mom and I came into town on Wednesday to pick up some of the stuff we’d forgotten. I needed eye drops, and cloth tape and scissors for bandaging my arm—I’d had to leave it unwrapped Tuesday night. We also got some groceries and I bought a cat carrier for Jerry at the Pet Lodge.

There was still a lot of smoke in the sky on Wednesday, and the news was saying 0–25% containment, and the roads were closed, so we didn’t even try to get close to see what was going on, we just finished up in town and went back to John’s.

Thursday, though, we decided to see how close we could get to our homes and see if we could find out what had happened to them. When we got to town, the fire appeared to be out, although we could still see occasional puffs of smoke from hot spots. The roads weren’t blocked, though, so we drove on up, and kept on driving up through the Old West Ranch gate. It was eerie driving through all the burned-out hills and gullies, with black ash covering the ground, and black skeletons of trees and bushes. There were some buildings destroyed, but a lot seemed to be still standing, as well.

We got to the property where the fire had started. A little way past it, the fire line abruptly ended, and we could see green up ahead. We rounded the bend, and there were our houses, just as we’d left them! We were so lucky. The wind had been in our favor, and the fire never came in our direction. Our homes were untouched.

We stopped at my place first. Everything was fine, even the fish were still swimming in their tank. What a relief! I drove Mom up to pick up her car, safe in the field where she’d left it, then left her to go to her place while I went back to mine to clean up a bit. I did the dishes, cleaned the fish tank, watered the plants, and brought the clothes in from the line. I thought the laundry would have to be re-washed, but it didn’t smell too smoky, so I just put it away.

Then a news crew from one of the local Bakersfield stations drove up and wanted to do an interview. So I let them put a microphone on me and told them about the fire: how it had started, how we got out, and that we’d just found out less than an hour ago that our homes were still standing. I believe it was on Fox 58 news. I never saw it, but a lot of people later told me they’d seen me on the news! I was probably looking pretty grubby, wearing the same blue cotton pants I’d evacuated in, my green TWEA tee-shirt, and Edna Valley cap. Probably looked like an  old mountain woman. Which I guess I am, oh well!

After we got our places in order, Mom and I went back into town. I stopped and took a few pictures of the devastation along the way.

West Fire, Kern County

Then we went to the sailplane airport to have lunch. A lot of the firefighting helicopters, small planes, and water tankers were using the airport. We watched the activity out the window as we ate.

West Fire activity at the airport

I’d been tempted to pack up and come home right away, but there were still a lot of fire trucks and water tankers and others working on the road, and a lot of hot spots and smoldering patches, and I decided it would be best to stay one more night at John’s. This time, though, I remembered my cell phone and the toiletry case I hadn’t had time to pack when we evacuated. John and his wife were thrilled to hear that our homes had survived! Considering how close we were to where it started, and how far it had spread, we had all been fearing the worst.

Friday morning, we packed up and came home. I later heard that the evacuation order was lifted at noon on Friday, so we jumped the gun by a few hours. Oops! I guess it was a good thing we decided to stay one more night at John’s.

Final tally was nearly 1700 acres burned, 23 primary residences destroyed and 8 damaged, 41 outbuildings destroyed. The community will be a long time recovering from it. But my mom and I and our kitties have settled back in, very grateful that our homes were spared.

Written by Cody Nelson in: daily ramble |

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