Firefighters battled desperately Wednesday to stop wildfires from destroying two beloved Southern California getaways, Lake Arrowhead and the historic mountain town of Julian, east of San Diego. One firefighter was killed, bringing the death toll to 20 after five days of the fires, which are now the largest in modern California history.
While there was progress in taming some of the 10 fires that have engulfed a broad arc of the region from Ventura County into Mexico, the blazes in the San Bernardino and Cleveland national forests continued to bedevil an exhausted army of firefighters.
By evening, crewshad managed to keep the infernos from overtaking Julian, an old gold mining town some 40 miles from San Diego, and much of Lake Arrowhead, the century-old resort on a man-made lake in the San Bernardino Mountains.
LAKE ARROWHEAD: Flames consume a neighborhood in the Cedar Glen area of Lake Arrowhead. The Southern California wildfires have claimed 20 lives, destroyed 2,605 homes and burned more than 675,000 acres, the largest toll in modern state history. (Photo: Richard Hartog/Los Angeles Times)
Still, about 350 houses were destroyed on the east side of Arrowhead, and strong winds created dangerous conditions Wednesday night that forced the evacuation of many firefighters.
Erratic wind gusts, some as high as 70 mph, sent flames in unexpected directions, not only frustrating efforts to douse them but sometimes engulfing and endangering fire crews. By late evening, strong winds were blowing the fire away from Arrowhead -- but toward another popular destination, Big Bear Lake.
Said Tricia Abbas, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in the San Bernardino National Forest: "I can't decide if I'm on the Titanic, or whether everything is going well and I'm overreacting."
The National Weather Service predicted continued gusty winds for today but said the region was also likely to see higher humidity and might have some rain by the end of the week.
State officials were not yet predicting when the Old fire, now burning near Lake Arrowhead, would be contained, but said the Cedar fire, which attacked Julian, would be contained by the middle of next week.
The battle to save Julian took its human toll when four firefighters were overrun by flames in their firetruck in the nearby hamlet of Wynola. One died and the other three were burned, one critically, authorities said.
Steven L. Rucker, 38, a firefighter and paramedic from the Marin County town of Novato, died. An 11-year veteran, he is survived by a wife and two children. The most severely injured firefighter was identified as Novato Fire Capt. Doug McDonald. He was expected to recover.
"This fire has been nothing short of apocalyptic," said Janet Marshall, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
State and local officials were still counting destroyed homes. The count stood at 2,605, with estimated losses exceeding $2 billion. Officials said 105,000 people had been evacuated from their homes at some point since the fires began.
The Cedar fire, at more than 250,000 acres, is now the largest on record in the state, surpassing the Matilija fire, which burned 220,000 acres of the Los Padres National Forest in Ventura County in 1932 but did not destroy any homes or cause any deaths. Overall, the fires have covered about 675,000 acres, more than twice the size of the city of Los Angeles.
Besides the firefighter killed Wednesday, authorities in San Diego County found the body of a person apparently killed by fire in rural Alpine earlier in the week. Two others were found dead in the vicinity of the Barona Ranch Indian Reservation south of Julian.
To the north, firefighters in Ventura and Los Angeles counties battled fires that ranged over brushland from near the small town of Fillmore to the Stevenson Ranch subdivision near Santa Clarita. Smoke from the fires forced the closure, for part of the day, of Interstate 5, the state's main north-south thoroughfare, near Valencia.
Firefighters in some areas benefited from a change in weather patterns that allowed cooler, moist marine air into the region. A low-pressure system moving into the region is expected to bring winds out of the south and west, which could push smoke away from urban Los Angeles and San Diego but propel fires farther into the mountain communities around Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead, weather officials said.
On the tarmac at San Bernardino International Airport, Gov. Gray Davis urged swift and severe punishment of the two arsonists believed to have set the Old fire in the San Bernardino Mountains. The blaze has caused at least four deaths, he noted.
"I think we should throw the book at them. They not only destroyed property, they destroyed dreams," Davis said before boarding a National Guard helicopter to tour the Lake Arrowhead area.
Arson is suspected in four of the fires plaguing the region, although no arrests have been made. A hunter has been cited for igniting the Cedar fire near San Diego, but he has not been accused of arson.
Davis also declared a state of emergency in Riverside County. He had previously declared emergencies in San Bernardino, Ventura, San Diego and Los Angeles counties.
The governor, soon to relinquish his office to Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, was reluctant to respond to criticism that he did not activate firefighting resources, especially air tankers, quickly enough in San Diego county and elsewhere.
"Let me be clear," Davis said. "I have marshaled all the resources of the state.... We're doing everything we can to put the fires out and put people's lives back in order."
In San Diego County, the defense of Julian came after a disastrous night in which hundreds of homes were destroyed in the hamlets of Cuyamaca and Pine Hills. Shifting winds kept firefighters racing from one location to another.
No new structures were reported burned within San Diego city limits, however, and officials said the western portion of the Cedar fire, nearest the city, was largely contained.
The fire jumped a 50-foot-wide break on the south side of Julian on Wednesday morning, surprising residents who had been told they could return to their homes in a tree-lined canyon above the tiny town of Santa Ysabel, just north of Julian.
Residents standing at a nearby checkpoint watched in horror as the flames climbed a ridge toward their homes in Wynola Estates.
"We thought we had good news this morning," said Jack Riordan, a painting contractor who moved to Wynola Estates a few months ago. "We were led to believe we could go up and see our house, but it doesn't look good now."
Riordan, 25, and his wife, Marcy, 26, fled their home on Monday in their car with their important paperwork and wedding photos. They went to stay at her parents' home in Ramona. Marcy's parents had stayed at their home just days earlier when the fire burned parts of Ramona.
"It's been hell," said Marcy Riordan, speaking through tears as fire engines raced by.
Their neighbors peered anxiously through the smoke-filled air toward the ridge.
"Your heart is racing because when all you see is the smoke you have this false sense of security that 'It's not going to get me,' " said Barbara Segni, 61. "And then you see the flames, and it's heart-wrenching. Everything you've worked for is up there and these flames are racing to take it all away. Right now we don't know if we have a home."
The tally of houses destroyed by the Cedar and Paradise fires in San Diego County exceeded 1,700, with damage assessment teams still unable to visit some scorched, smoldering areas to get a final count.
Even as other homes were being burned, owners of homes destroyed in the fires' first three days clamored to begin rebuilding. City and county officials promised to waive fees and expedite permits.
"There are people out there ready to clear their land and begin to rebuild," said county Supervisor Dianne Jacob. "We're going to help every way we can."
Within the San Diego city limits, relief was mixed with incredulity.
"People are asking 'Why us?' " said Michael McDade, a lawyer. "But this is a tremendously resilient city. When you hear the volunteer center say they've got more volunteers than they need, you know you live in a special place."
Thousands of property owners remained without electricity because of damaged or destroyed transmission lines. Hospitals treated many patients with breathing problems because of smoke.
The Navy resumed normal operations, but schools remained closed. San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy began planning with religious leaders for an inter-faith service Sunday to help the community cope with the trauma.
For most of the past week, the main expanse of the Old fire, the name given to the blaze advancing through the San Bernardino National Forest, was south of Highway 18, the Rim of the World Highway. But Monday night, firefighters were struggling to beat down patches that had jumped the road. And before dawn Wednesday, the flames crossed the highway in two places and began a northward advance.
On the east side, the flames crossed the highway near Heaps Peak and descended into Hook Creek Canyon. From there, they burned through the community of Cedar Glen and northeastern Lake Arrowhead, destroying dozens of homes.
"The fire devastated the Cedar Glen community, just ravaged it," said Los Angeles County firefighter Dennis Cross.
To the west, the fire skirted Arrowhead, went past Silverwood Lake and headed north toward the high desert community of Hesperia. Firefighters appeared to have stopped the flames directly south of the lake, preventing, at least for the time being, an advance that many had feared would destroy the lakeside resort.
After taking on the blaze that jumped the highway near Heaps Peak, weary firefighters were forced to retreat to their vehicles.
"It's been a hell of a morning," said Dewey Rebbe, part of an elite New Mexico firefighting squad. "Winds pushed by the fire reached 70 mph."
At Arrowhead, the fire came within a mile of large estates surrounded by trees that have been killed by a bark beetles. In midafternoon, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Dennis Cross stood outside the Mountains Community Hospital, near the eastern shore of the lake, warily surveying plumes of dark smoke.
"What's also troubling right now are these erratic winds," he said. By midnight, the hospital was surrounded on three sides by fire.
Among the victories logged by firefighters was fighting off the destruction of the 500-acre Las Flores ranch, owned by Kentucky Derby-winning horse trainer Jack Van Berg. The high desert ranch, located at the head of the Mojave River in Summit Valley, is home to the oldest standing barn in Southern California, which was built in 1872. This barn is flanked by a dozen wooden farm buildings and large stands of cottonwood and plum trees.
Van Berg said fire closed in on the property Tuesday night, forcing him to retreat to a concrete powerhouse, where he convinced himself that his ranch was lost. When he emerged, the property remained intact except for several cottonwoods scorched near the Mojave River to the north. Eighty-five horses that Van Berg left grazing on his property also appeared to have survived the harrowing night unscathed.
Van Berg credited firefighters who surrounded his ranch and sprayed his buildings with fire-retardant foam.
"You have to thank the Lord that he is looking over us the way the fire was raging and rushing through us," said Van Berg as he fed his horses Wednesday afternoon. And, he said, "You have to give credit to the boys who came to protect us."
In northern Los Angeles County, wind-whipped flames threatened -- but appeared to be sparing -- about 150 homes hugging the Golden State Freeway just outside the Santa Clarita city limits.
Firefighters pounced on the advancing wall of fire at the Stevenson Ranch subdivision with waiting hose lines, halting flames within yards of recently built homes in the affluent neighborhood.
The flare-up was under control within an hour, as ridge tops continued to burn in a widening semicircle through the hilly area.
Fire teams were plagued all afternoon and evening by wind-borne embers that ignited several brush fires next to Interstate 5, only a stone's throw from large subdivisions within the Santa Clarita city limits.
Wind gusts of up to 20 mph actually helped, said Battalion Chief Bob Trowbridge of the Burbank Fire Department, because they blew the flames away from homes.
In a sign that things may be returning to normal, the Red Cross closed the last of its Simi Valley emergency shelters, at the Rancho Santa Susana community center. Since it opened on Saturday, the Red Cross had housed 139 people and served more than 4,000 meals, spokeswoman Cecilia Cuevas said.
Now the Red Cross will shift its efforts to providing clothing and money to fire victims.
"This is where the hard work begins," Cuevas said. "This is when we really provide direct outreach."
Meanwhile, crews battling a dogged 56,000-acre fire in the Los Padres National Forest said southerly winds were helping push the fire away from the towns of Fillmore and Piru. However, 400 homes on the edges of those towns were still considered threatened, and firefighters were still fighting the blaze.
To add to the jitters induced by fire in recent days, Simi Valley and San Fernando Valley residents experienced three minor earthquakes Wednesday. There were no reports of damage from the temblors, which ranged in magnitude from 2.8 to 3.6, in the mild-to-moderate range.
Southland fire coverage contributors