Californians get little time to flee fast-moving flames

A firefighter sets a backfire by a wildfire burning near Lake Isabella. (Ryan Babroff via AP)
A firefighter sets a backfire by a wildfire burning near Lake Isabella. (Ryan Babroff via AP)

Lake Isabella - A wildfire that roared across dry brush and trees in the mountains of central California gave residents little time to flee as flames burned homes to the ground, propane tanks exploded and smoke obscured the path to safety.

David Klaippel, 78, a retired police officer, said on Friday that he didn't see much of a threat after receiving an automated call advising him to leave. That changed dramatically within an hour on Thursday afternoon.

"I've never been so close to a fast-moving, ferocious fire. It was unbelievable," said Klaippel, who later learned his house had caught fire. "I almost didn't have time to get out."

Entire neighbourhoods of mobile homes were charred to their foundations. Heavy smoke hung over the popular recreation area of Lake Isabella, and winds pushed the flames farther into drought-starved terrain to allow the fire to grow to 75km².

"The forces of nature collided with a spark," Kern County Fire Chief Brian Marshall said. "The mountainous terrain, five years of drought and wind gusts of over 32km/h all drove a fire over 17km in 13 hours."

Scorching heat and tinder-dry conditions across the West have ignited massive wildfires in the past week that have destroyed properties and driven residents from their homes in several states.

The blaze in the southern Sierra Nevada east of Bakersfield quickly became one of the most devastating, forcing several thousand people to evacuate and putting some 1 500 homes in jeopardy.

Three firefighters suffered smoke inhalation, but no other injuries were reported.

Blaze of 'epic proportions'

Crews faced a blaze "of epic proportions" as they tried to protect neighbourhoods, Marshall said. Officials put losses at 80 houses and 20 other buildings, though they said that number will grow as the smoke clears and they do a more thorough check of smouldering neighbourhoods.

Video from Thursday night showed homes fully engulfed and others already gone as propane tanks flared up and exploded. Flames could be seen in the steep, rocky hillsides early the next morning.

When daylight broke, whole neighbourhoods were reduced to rubble. Scorched cars sat on tyreless rims and leafless trees poked from barren, blackened dirt.

Residents described a frantic flight from communities around the lake, a major destination for boating, fishing, rafting, hiking and camping.

Cachet Kirby, 22, of Mount Mesa, said she and neighbours grabbed clothes, blankets and their dogs, fleeing through thick smoke as flames charged down the mountains.

"It was to the point you couldn't see, you couldn't breathe," she said.

She and others, exhausted on Friday morning after little sleep in shelters and cars, were desperate for information about their homes.

"We could have gotten lucky and the wind shifted, or our house could be burned down," Kirby said.

Cellphone service was cut off in many areas, contributing to the anxieties.

Very low humidity and gusty winds of up to 88km/h could worsen a blaze that broke out amid high temperatures and climbed over at least three ridges into hillside neighbourhoods, authorities said.

"I've never been in a wildland fire where I've seen so many homes burn," Kern County fire Captain Tyler Townsend said. "It's one of the most devastating I've ever seen."

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