2004Breaking News Reporting

Wildfires Destroy 200 Homes

Thousands Evacuate as Flames Scorch 50,000 Acres
Janet Wilson, Lance Pugmire and Monte Morin
Times Staff Writers
October 26, 2003

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Wildfires driven by winds and high temperatures burned out of control Saturday in the San Bernardino Mountains, triggering firestorms that destroyed more than 200 homes in foothill suburbs and forced the evacuation of thousands of residents from San Bernardino to Rancho Cucamonga.

Stoked by Santa Ana winds that knocked firefighters off their feet and grounded water-dropping helicopters and airplanes, scattered fires covered more than 50,000 acres from Ventura to San Diego counties and raised a ceiling of thick black smoke that spread ash for miles. In all, more than 4,000 firefighters were deployed and more than 13,000 homes threatened.

Two San Bernardino men were reported dead, apparently from heart attacks, Saturday--one as he tried to evacuate and another as he watched his house burn. They were identified as James W. McDermith, 70, and Charles Cunnigham, 93. Firefighters searched smoldering homes overnight for residents who might have failed to escape.

Firefighters, who had already labored for days in triple-digit temperatures, faced their gravest challenge Saturday in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains just east of the 215 Freeway.

Cyclones of embers tore through the historic San Bernardino neighborhood of Del Rosa, setting dozens of houses ablaze. Flames leapt from building to building along cul-de-sacs on the edge of the foothills, as palm and pine trees exploded in flames. As residents fled, some homeowners ignored the order, wrapped towels over their faces and attempted to save their homes with garden hoses.

rooftop battle

ROOFTOP BATTLE: North San Bernardino resident Roger Tillman keeps his friend's roof watered down as nearby homes burn. (Photo: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

"Today we have bad news and worse news," San Bernardino County Deputy Fire Chief Dan Worl told a group of fire evacuees. "We just don't have any place to contain this fire."

The blaze, 50 miles east of Los Angeles, spread rapidly along two fronts and late Saturday threatened to burn explosively dry forests devastated by drought and bark beetles. By 9:40 p.m., a separate fire in Crestline had prompted mandatory evacuations of Twin Peaks, Blue Jay and Crestline communities and closed Highway 330, the route to Big Bear, to all traffic. Federal officials Saturday closed the San Bernardino National Forest to all visitors.

Local officials called upon Gov. Gray Davis to declare a state of emergency as fire authorities urged thousands of residents to evacuate. Within hours, a makeshift evacuation center at the San Bernardino International Airport was overflowing with fire refugees.

The so-called Old Fire in San Bernardino devoured more than 10,000 acres of forest land and scores of homes in the Del Rosa Estates area and along Quail Canyon. As of late Saturday, fire officials said more than 200 homes and other structures were destroyed, said San Bernardino Fire Chief Larry Pitzer.

"My house is already gone," cried Sonia Sanchez as she stood amid a blizzard of ash and smoke at the corner of Del Rosa Avenue and Marshall Boulevard. "The fire moved so fast that all we got out was my family and our cars."

Fanned by gusts of more than 50 mph, the blaze exploded into a two-headed firestorm that spread east through a neighborhood of half-million-dollar homes in Quail Canyon, and west to the campus of Cal State San Bernardino.

The Rim of the World Highway to Lake Arrowhead was shut down, as was a portion of Interstate 10 near San Bernardino for a time. A Southern California Edison spokesman said the blaze knocked out power to Running Springs, Crestline and Lake Arrowhead, and will be out indefinitely.

The San Bernardino fire also threatened several homes near the base of the Rim of the World Highway and authorities ordered the San Manuel Indian casino evacuated.

As flames headed west, a fog of heavy black smoke blew through Cal State San Bernardino, tripping fire alarms and triggering sprinkler systems throughout the campus. Sparks ignited small brush fires on the grounds and the recreation center caught fire. Officials ordered all dorms and buildings evacuated and canceled sporting events.

By late Saturday evening, bare chimneys stood amid smoking embers in some neighborhoods as police patrolled the streets for looters. At least three people were arrested when they were caught outside evacuated homes, police said.

The San Bernardino fire was first reported about 8:30 a.m. Saturday on Old Waterman Road and Rim of the World Highway. The California Highway Patrol a short time later reported that passengers in a gray van were allegedly seen flicking burning matches out the window as they drove toward Lake Arrowhead.

"We're aware of the van. It's being investigated aggressively," said San Bernardino County Sheriff's Deputy John Hernandez.


DESPERATION: Bob Thibodeau waters down his roof with a garden hose as his wife, Diane, and son, Chris, evacuate their dogs.

The San Bernardino Fire Department used every available city firefighter, along with several federal forest service crews, but they were overwhelmed, said Battalion Chief Jess Campos. Campos made a desperate appeal for help Saturday afternoon. Every fire crew in Southern California was spoken for, however, fighting other blazes throughout the region, he said.

"We've stripped all of California's resources," Campos said. "If anything else breaks in the forest, how do we fight it?"

The erratic path of the San Bernardino fire, fed by 50 mph gusts, was similar to that of the Panorama fire, which burned in the San Bernardino Mountains in 1980, destroying more than 300 homes and killing four people, Campos said. He said firefighters were worried late Saturday about the fire moving farther north into the mountains, where drought and bark beetle infestation have killed thousands of trees -- turning them into kindling.

Before the outbreak of the San Bernardino fire, firefighters had been battling a blaze that started five days ago in the steep and rugged foothills north of Rancho Cucamonga. The so-called Grand Prix fire, which was believed to have been intentionally started, had consumed 27,200 acres and destroyed 15 homes by late Saturday. By midnight, it had crossed into Los Angeles County and was threatening high-voltage power transmission lines that provide 25% of the power to the L.A. basin, state officials said.

After nightfall Saturday, the Grand Prix fire crept south from the foothills, jumped fire breaks, and burned several homes in the Alta Loma neighborhood of Rancho Cucamonga.

"Oh my God, oh my God, it's an inferno!" said Debra Kline, 52, as she, her son and a friend hosed down their home, which was surrounded by burning homes, trees and lawns. People ran for their cars as firefighters laid out hose lines. Embers fell from the sky.

Early Saturday morning, Rancho Cucamonga residents said they were alarmed by the fire's rapid progress, and watched as sparks set the surrounding hillside afire. Alex Rios, 36, and his wife, Teresa, 29, spent most of the night watching flames out the back window of their Sand Hill home.

"They were pretty far away, and all of a sudden came down into the backyard," Alex Rios said. "It jumped over the wall behind us into our backyard, and we just ran. We grabbed our snake, our kids, our toothbrush and our two dogs, and we got out of there."

A team of 20 firefighters in the area found themselves cornered by flames.

"All I saw was a wall of fire," said Jimmy Avila, superintendent of the Big Bear Hotshots fire crew. "It happened real quick. One minute, the fire wasn't there, the next second it was."

Six of his crew stepped quickly into the safety of burned ground, but the others were forced to run for cover. Two of the men suffered smoke inhalation and the third suffered second-degree burns on his face. All three were taken to a hospital and later released.

At Los Osos High School in Rancho Cucamonga, exhausted firefighters coughed into their fists and rubbed bloodshot eyes. A dozen tried to rest on small cots.

"If you can't get to it, it's out of control," said Norco Fire Captain Don Willis. "And we can't get to it."

San Bernardino County Fire Department Assistant Chief Dan Worl painted a grim picture for several hundred residents gathered at Life Bible Fellowship Church in the San Antonio Heights area of Upland on Saturday afternoon.

Worl recounted how the fire had begun about 10 miles away in the Hunter Ridge subdivision of northwest Fontana before sprinting to the slopes just above their community.

"The fire is pretty angry. It's coming at us with everything it has. The firefighters are taking a beating," Worl said. "We have exhausted everybody, every firefighter and every resource from Fresno south and are competing with fires from L.A., Ventura and elsewhere."

Authorities late Saturday closed Interstate 15 between Devore and the 210 Freeway.

As firefighters battled flames in the San Bernardino Mountains, fire crews in Los Angeles and Ventura counties fought wildfires that consumed more than 10,000 acres and threatened homes in Simi Valley and Moorpark. A fire south of the Ronald Reagan Freeway in Moorpark swept through a mobile home park and destroyed six trailers. There were no reported injuries.

The fire threatening Simi Valley and Moorpark, began in Val Verde, near Santa Clarita, and jumped Highway 126. "It got away from us," said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Steve Cookus.

Tom Barron and his wife, Barbara Wampole, were among the first to evacuate their home in San Martinez Grande Canyon, leaving behind a platoon of firefighters who surrounded their property. The fire "sounded like thousands of sails of ships blowing, like fabric," Wampole said.

The fire burned into the night.


DISTRAUGHT: One man tries to comfort another amid the burning homes and low visibility in San Bernardino.

With a convoy of cars piling up behind them, more than a dozen motorists parked and stood on the First Street overpass of the Ronald Reagan Freeway in Simi Valley about 8 p.m. to watch the flames.

"It's majestic," said Roger Breithaupt, 55. "It's definitely something to see. We lived through a similar situation 10 to 12 years ago."

By early Saturday, the Lake Piru fire in Ventura County had spread to 1,250 acres and a voluntary evacuation was in effect in Piru, an unincorporated community of about 300 residents. The fire was whipped by strong winds out of the northeast and spread far into Los Padres National Forest.

Authorities there reported no structures burned and no injuries Saturday. Fire officials said that steep, rugged terrain and low levels of humidity were making it difficult for firefighters and hand crews to get an upper hand on the fire, which was only 30% contained and expected to burn for several days.

In San Diego County, a fire believed to have been sparked during a weapons exercise at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base on Tuesday continued to burn Saturday and had consumed roughly 4,700 acres. Just 55% contained, the fire has moved to within a mile of ranches in De Luz.

The smallest Southern California fire was burning northwest of Santa Barbara in Los Padres National Forest. The 250-acre blaze was 40% contained by Saturday afternoon. No buildings were lost, fire authorities said.

Southland Wildfire Coverage Contributors
The following Times staff writers contributed to the coverage of the wildfires:
Hector Becerra, Daren Briscoe, Jose Cardenas, Amanda Covarrubias, Cara DiMassa, Jessica Garrison, David Haldane, Allison Hoffman, Shawn Hubler, Steve Hymon, Dan Morain, Monte Morin, Joel Rubin, Tony Perry, David Pierson, Lance Pugmire, Charles Ornstein, Louis Sahagun, Doug Smith, Wendy Thermos, Janet Wilson, Sue Fox and Holly Wolcott.