Wildfire: 175 Homes Asked to Evacuate in Lebec

The combination of the power of the DC-10 to stop a raging fire in its tracks and the aggressive professionalism of the firefighters who kept the August 24 Post fire from destroying homes or lives this week has left area residents deeply grateful and a little bit awestruck.

The Mountain Enterprise received hundreds of photos and reports from community reporters, using BreakingNews@ MountainEnterprise.com and 661-245-NEWS. Several, such as Chuck Noble, Peter Mack and Bill Whitelock—all of Los Padres Estates—were evacuated themselves. Many in their neighborhood were easily convinced to leave their homes when they saw the fire explode over the top of the hill above them.

“This is a wind and terrain driven fire,” Sean Collins of the Kern County Fire Department said. And then the wind increased.

Kern County Sheriff’s deputies canvassed the roads, telling people they were advised to leave. “My wife picked up the girls from Frazier Park School and couldn’t get back in our place,” Whitelock said. “I was gathering up things like files, insurance papers pictures, my martial arts awards, my kids’ “blankies”…my computer and external drive is in the back of the car; the kids’ clothes are in suitcases with the little momentos from my kids that I always have in a box in case I have to leave quickly.”

California Highway Patrol officers cleared the roads to keep people out of the way of the firefighting operations. Roads were filled with large trucks, bulldozers and equipment.

The Incident Command Center was set up at Lebec Oaks Road and Lebec Road. Kern County resources were quickly joined by L.A. County engines, plus state and federal resources, including the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and numerous other fire agencies. The Red Cross organized an evacuation center at Frazier Mountain High School.

Five fixed wing tankers, including the DC-10, and five helicopters worked the skies, while ground crews protected homes below.

Media from Bakersfield and Los Angeles began calling The Mountain Enterprise and area residents for interviews. The story went national by the afternoon when suddenly the wind began pushing the fire toward Frazier Park.

Chuck Noble and his wife had taken their travel trailer to the Pilot Flying J parking lot. From there they saw the long flames move across Chimney Canyon and reach northwest toward Frazier Park.

Smoke towered above the town, and then flames licked the sky from a ridge above Frazier Park School. Suddenly Noble saw a thundering DC-10 sweep across the sky, laying a thick carpet of crimson fire retardant between the fire and the people below.

“In all the danger and confusion of a large wildland fire, to watch the flying skills of these pilots was truly amazing. We watched the DC-10 tanker (designed as a passenger airliner) fly west over Frazier Mountain Park and make a steep banked turn to the north, like a fighter jet, then make another steep banked turn to come back east over the ridgetops before dropping retardant. What a thrill that would be as a commercial airline passenger, flying that close to the ground!” publisher Gary Meyer said.

Sheriff’s deputies deployed to Frazier Park to tell the population to make preparations in case they too needed to evacuate. Reverse 911 calls were received by 350 residents, giving them the alert.

By Tuesday night, 650 firefighters had joined the battle. The fire had consumed 1,300 acres officials reported. But no homes or lives had been lost. As the sun set and the moon rose, little “campfires” in the ridges to the east were observed from the hillsides of Frazier Park. By 8 p.m. Bill Whitelock, Chuck Noble and the Macks were able to return home. The evacuation preparedness alert was withdrawn in Frazier Park. David Stenstrom told CNN.com that he would be sleeping “with one eye open.”

An army of ground crews worked through the night to extinguish those hot spots. On Wednesday morning, El Tejon Unified closed all of their schools except in Pine Mountain. Incident command officers said the fire was 30 percent contained. The aircraft resumed their flights. Governor Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state of emergency, so a federal grant will help with the cost of the aircraft.

By Wednesday night, revised GPS readings reduced the acres burned to 1,000. There were 33 hand crews, 87 engines, 10 bulldozers, 9 water tenders and 8 helicopters on the job with 1,029 firefighters. The fire is 60 percent contained. There have been no reported injuries and no homes have been reported lost. All schools will re-open on Thursday.

–Patric Hedlund, The Mountain Enterprise staff and all the community reporters

This is part of the August 27, 2010 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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