Exclusive: Witness recalls suspicious explosion before wildfire

Exclusive: Witness recalls suspicious explosion before wildfire »Play Video
The Gulch Fire burns Tuesday, June 19, 2012, in the Kern River Valley.
LAKE ISABELLA, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Now that the Gulch Fire is mostly contained, the focus turns to the investigation to find out what started it all. In a story exclusive to Eyewitness News, our team talked Thursday to some Lake Isabella locals who say they heard something explode moments before flames erupted up the mountainside.

"It sounded like an explosion, not a car explosion, just like propane or something," said Lake Isabella resident Nick Magarett. He and his friends were enjoying a peaceful afternoon swimming at the lake when something suddenly interrupted their tranquility around 6:15 Tuesday evening.

"Within 30 seconds, 45 seconds, is when we started to notice all the smoke and everything coming up," said Magarett. He said the sound echoed through the valley but originated in an area near the French Gulch Bridge.

"Fires are pretty common up here, but you don't usually hear an explosion before it, that is kind of out of the ordinary," explained Magarett.

Lake Isabella is home to Magarett and friends, so when they saw smoke and flames, they knew exactly what to do.

"We called 911, and they sent people out, and we stayed here a little while longer and watched it," said Jeanette Montijo, friend of Magarett.

Montijo’ s sister, Jacquelyn, captured photographs of the Gulch Fire as it grew and began threatening the homes.

"It was just really close, you could feel the heat coming from the flames," said Esther Lopez, whose home is less than 100 feet from the fire line.

The Lopez home and several others were saved, but back near the French Gulch Bridge you can clearly see the ignition point of the fire. It's in that place where firefighters are focusing their investigation.

"They really go through that with a fine-tooth comb, they grid it, look at it under magnify glasses to see if there is something they can find in there," said Capt. Sean Collins of the Kern County Fire Department.

Magarett said he is convinced the sound he heard is directly connected to the cause of the fire and is worried about the dry fire season ahead.

"It sucks, for what we do have here, we try to keep it beautiful, it sucks when it burns down like that," he said. "We've always been told to watch for fires, and if you see a fire to report it immediately."

Magarett said he was not interviewed by fire officials about what he heard.

Investigators are now asking anyone who may have seen either people or vehicles in the area around that time to report it by calling 1-877-FIRE-TIP.