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Flames roar through central California homes; thousands flee

  • The 10 Tanker Air Carrier DC-10 dropped a load of fire retardant on the Erskine fire near Lake Isabella, Calif. on Thursday. It carries 11,600 gallons of fire retardant per load. Multiple resources were called to battle the blaze. (Casey Christie/The Bakersfield Californian via AP)

  • Fire crews work on the Erskine fire line, Thursday, near Lake Isabella, Calif. after the area was “painted” by an air tankers earlier fire retardant drop. The wildland fire consumed over 2,000 acres and burned several structures. (Casey Christie/The Bakersfield Californian via AP)

  • Large columns of smoke from the Erskine Fire, Thursday, near Lake Isabella, Calif. could be seen from as far away as Bakersfield, Calif. The wild land fire burned over 2,000 acres and many homes in the area. (Casey Christie/The Bakersfield Californian via AP)

LAKE ISABELLA, Calif. » Residents choking on smoke fled a wildfire that tore through mountain communities and burned dozens of homes to the ground in California’s southern Sierra Nevada, authorities said today.

The streaking blaze that destroyed 80 houses and 20 other buildings 35 miles northeast of Bakersfield ignited around a popular recreation area Thursday as many other fires across the West were calming.

“The forces of nature collided with a spark,” Kern County Fire Chief Brian Marshall said. “The mountain terrain, five years of drought and wind gusts of over 20 mph all drove a fire over 11 miles in 13 hours.”

It had charred more than 12 square miles by this morning, with heavy smoke hanging and flames licking steep, rocky hillsides.

Several thousand people have been forced to evacuate, and some 1,500 homes are threatened. Three firefighters suffered smoke inhalation, but no other injuries were reported.

Residents described a frantic flight from communities around Lake Isabella, a major destination for boating, fly fishing, rafting, hiking and camping.

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

“It was to the point you couldn’t see, you couldn’t breathe,” she said.

She and others, exhausted this morning, 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 out in many areas, contributing to the anxieties.

Very low humidity and gusty winds of up to 55 mph could worsen a blaze that broke out amid high temperatures and climbed over at least three ridges into hillside neighborhoods, authorities said

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

Many of the houses in the area have propane tanks that added to the danger, and some residents were refusing to evacuate, Townsend said.

Helicopters, bulldozers and 350 firefighters were fighting the flames — a force officials hoped to double during the day.

“We’ll continue to be on the front lines throwing everything we have at it,” Marshall said.

Elsewhere in California, cooler weather helped crews fighting two fires that burned more than 8 square miles of chaparral and brush in the Angeles National Forest and foothill communities northeast of Los Angeles. The fires were partially contained.

More than 1,300 homes in Duarte and Azusa were evacuated during the four-day-old blaze, but about half have been cleared for residents to return.

Near the border with Mexico, an 11-square-mile fire was partially contained after burning five homes about 40 miles southeast of San Diego. Most evacuees were allowed to go home Thursday.

In Colorado, a forest fire near the Wyoming line threatened about 40 cabins after exploding in size to more than 8 square miles, officials said. Shifting winds sent the blaze surging from a single square mile.

Trees killed by a beetle infestation fueled the flames in and around Routt National Forest, 140 miles north of Denver and 2 miles from Wyoming. The deadwood made it too dangerous to send in crews to battle the flames, so they were attacking the fire’s perimeter, fire information officer Brian Scott said.

In eastern Arizona, firefighters managed to corral nearly half of a fire that roared through about 67 square miles of pine, juniper and brush on an Apache Indian reservation.

“They’re really working their hearts out, and I think we’ve turned a corner,” fire information spokeswoman Rita Baysinger said.

Still, more than 15,000 people in Pinetop-Lakeside, Show Low and nearby mountain communities have been told to be ready to evacuate if necessary.

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