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Another Article Historic Firestorm

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October 28, 2003 03:18PM
UPDATE: Fire crews make last stand

02:22 PM PST on Tuesday, October 28, 2003

The Press-Enterprise and PE.com

Command staff for the Old Fire held a solemn, tear-filled meeting at the San Bernardino Command Center this morning, during which top fire officials were asked to tell their crews to dig deep and give everything they had to try and save at least part of the burning mountain.

"No one in this room has ever faced such an enormous task -- and never again will you," Incident Commander Hal Mortier told about two dozen bleary-eyed captains and chiefs. "This is something that has never been done before."

Mountain residents are under mandatory evacuation, from the top of the mountain all the way to Yucaipa.

Big Bear residents are asked to use Highway 18 for evacuation.

Residents of Seven Oaks, Angelus Oaks, Forest Falls, Mountain Home Village Barton Flats are asked to use Highway 38 route for evacuations, according to Rene Groese, public education specialist with San Bernardino County Fire.

Mortier said he knew thousands of firefighters have worked 36 and 48-hour shifts, but with the fire swelling simultaneously to the north, the west and the east, it will take more than hard work to save the mountain communities.

"I'm begging you to pull it out," Mortier said. "Pull it out wherever you've got it."

Gene Zimmerman, supervisor for the San Bernardino National Forest told the group that no expense was to be spared, especially in the next two pivotal days.

"Cost is no longer an issue," Zimmerman said. "By God, we're going to spend the money it takes to be as aggressive. That mountain is the only resource we can't spare."

Zimmerman and Forest Chief Mike Dietrich, San Bernardino County Sheriff's Capt. John Hernandez, along with other Inland officials in the meeting, were lauded on a year of planning.

With evacuations going smoothly from Devore to Big Bear, fire crews have been able to focus on mounting a formidable attack on the fast-growing blaze, Dietrich said after the meeting.

But he remained "a lot concerned" about the fate of Lake Arrowhead, Running Springs, Skyforest Crestline and other resort towns surrounded by beetle-infested, dead forest.

"The worst case scenario has happened at the worst possible time," Dietrich said. "We identified the risk that we could lose some of those communities months ago. Now were doing everything we can to stop that from happening.

During the hour-long meeting, a handful of the officials could be seen sobbing quietly. One screamed into a cellular phone, begging her family to leave the mountaintop.

Fire crews exhausted

A week of toiling on firelines across Southern California has left thousands of men and women exhausted.

Capt. Martin Gill of the California Department of Forestry in Riverside County has worked with little rest every day since the fires started early last week.

By mid-afternoon today, he sat barely awake and half-slumped over a bowl of Froot Loops covered with ash in the mess tent at the fire camp in San Bernardino. Above and to the east, wildfire raged toward communities in the mountain.

"What's happening up there is historic, one of those things we're going to read about in text books, so there's a feeling that everybody wants to be up there," he said. "Exhaustion becomes a factor."

Firefighters at the camp told stories of crewmates falling asleep while standing on the fire line. A few said the saw men fall out in the middle of the fight, though they declined to identify them because, they said, it could happen to anyone.

"When you stop moving, you fall asleep," San Diego firefighter Anthony Wheeler, whose crew was headed home after a stint of long shifts including one that was 36 hours long.

Added firefighter Nick Ramirez,"It's amazing how fast it happens, one minute you're doing fine. The next minute you're asleep."

Some firefighters have worked 48-hour shifts, and in a Tuesday morning meeting of top command staff for the Old Fire, officials said they expect that to continue in the next few days.

At camp, more than 100 firefighters in engines, cars, on the grass and in dozens of tents -- some of them pitched on concrete lots at the Mill Street camp.

"Everyone is tired," Gill said. "But we have to keep going."

Outside the Incident Command Post, resting firefighters goofed off, threw footballs, talked to loved ones on phones and laptop computers. Some played poker, one played a guitar and many more slept in tents and against the window-panes of their engines, gathering energy for the night ahead.

UPDATES - RUNNING SPRINGS

Just before noon, more bad news arrived in Running Springs.

"They're evacuating Big Bear," said Running Springs Fire Department Battalion Chief Tony Grabow. "That's pretty phenomenal."

Still, reinforcements were trickling in, bolstering morale.

"There are seven hand crews up here," said Grabow. "But it's tough giving them assignments because it's so steep, we're worried about their safety."

Chief Bill Smith presided over a noon planning meeting that was largely a balancing act between defending the town and protecting the 35 fire engine crews already under his command.

"It comes down to (the discretion of) the individual (engine) captain. If they feel something is unsafe, they have the right to refuse an assignment," Smith told his commanders. "And I don't want anybody trying to do otherwise."

But with 35 additional engines on order, planners were counting on being able to mount an aggressive defense.

Their key problem was the probability that the fire would attack on two fronts: from the south toward Smiley Park and downtown, and along the western edge of town into Enchanted Forest and Nob Hill.

Failure to stop the fire could be disastrous, they all knew.

"If it goes over Nob Hill, it's going to go into Arrowbear, Green Valley Lake and the whole thing," Wilkins said before the meeting.

After the meeting, Smith looked at his wristwatch.

Forecasters were calling for the winds to shift at 3 p.m., speeding the fire uphill toward town.

"Right now what little wind we have is keeping it from coming upslope," Smith said. "From where it's burning now, it's all uphill and it will have at least a 20 mph wind pushing it."

Still he hoped the blaze wouldn't come into town until late Tuesday night.

"Historically fires burn more intensely at night," he said. "With the conditions we have."

Fire officials warned that the fire could take a turn for the worst by mid-morning.

By 9:45 a.m., all five of the local engines and the 15 reinforcement engines were ready to leave, largely because fire officials had "borrowed" a fuel tanker headed farther east. But there was still no sign of the additional 20 engines that had been requested.

"And even that wouldn't be enough," said Running Springs Battalion Chief Tony Graybow, who estimated the flames were now about a mile from town.

Grabow was responsible for protecting 3,800 of town's homes -- or 90 houses for each of his 20 fire engines.

"I don't like the odds," he said. "Be we've got good firefighters on them."

UPDATES - RIM OF THE WORLD

At 1:30 p.m., along Highway 18 between Sky Forest and Rim of the World High School, dozens of firefighters were lighting backfires along the downhill side of the highway, likely trying to quell the expected advance of the fire later today. Trees turned into crisp match sticks, as blackened chunks fell off crashing into the road.

The fire scaled several trees, pushing hot air to all sides. The air swooshed and crackled.

Tanker after tanker rumbled by, releasing loads of catsup-colored retardant that whistled as it fell, temporarily glazing the sky with a fine red mist. The planes aimed their load on both sides of the highway, lathering the steep banks with the protective liquid.

The sky remained black, blocking the sun.

San Bernardino County fire Capt. Greg Sears stood Tuesday morning near the west end of Rim Forest, where about a dozen homes and structures had burned about 2 a.m. Sears works in Fontana and lives in Lake Arrowhead.

Smoking foundations and chimneys stood in the midst of a forest of blackened trees. The ashy husks of cars and trucks sat beneath the skeletal remains of several carports and garages.

Despite the destruction nearby, Sears was grateful that the damage was limited. Thousands more homes were at stake to the north and his crew had helped check the blaze with backfires before it could rage into the Lake Arrowhead area. The winds, which had been stoking the fire earlier, had calmed down by mid-morning.

"I think it was the real deal that came through here, not backfires," Sears said. "I'm a little bit encouraged. We held it at the 18 and we fired out by Daley Canyon Road."

"They're making a stand on Strawberry Peak below the com towers," Sears said, referring to a complex of communications relay towers on top of the peak, which stands north of Highway 18. "If the wind holds like this, we're looking good."

Nevertheless, Sears was wary of the progress of fires further west and the potential for a change in the weather.

"We might have a cold front moving in, and that'll bring wind working against us," he said. "If it gets around Cedar Pines Park and hooks around, it could set up for a perfect firestorm."

At 10:45 a.m., firefighters were setting up a fire retardant dip site where helicopters will pick up retardant from two red tubs, each 8 feet tall, holding thousands of gallons of a mix of water and retardant.

Firefighters took down two light poles in the school parking lot to allow helicopers to dip into tubs.

The tubs should be operational within an hour.

"They (helicopters), can get into areas that the fixed planes cannot," said Gary Makapugay, a battlion chief with Riverside County CDF.

They're continuing to light backfires on the left of the high school, towards Skyforest. There's a wall of white, gray and red smoke. Everything facing the valley is gray.

Behind the high school, in the direction of Lake Arrowhead, is blue sky.

There's a lull in the wind -- firefighters are taking a break. The biggest fear is that wind will change to onshore wind blowing up the mountain, which often happens in the afternoon.

On the other side of the high school, in Rim Forest, 10 homes burned above Highway 18 towards Stawberry Peak. But they've stopped the fire on Strawberry Peak. Big lumberyard in Rim Forest was not burned -- they sprayed fire retardant on it.

Flames began crawling up towards the rim of Highway 18 earlier this morning. Several firefighters lit backfires, sending fires back down the hill to burn the brush and dried grass and eliminate potential fuel for the approaching fire.

It appears to be a success at the moment. Heavy winds blowing west spurred the backfire and also helped blow the advancing fire away from the highway.

"This was ideal for us" said David Kelly, acting batallion chief with CDF. "But if the winds don't hold, we can't protect the Rim of the World High School.

The strategy was to push the advancing fire into the other fire coming up from Running Springs, creating the "pinching effect" and hopefully stoppng the fire, Kelly said.

Kelly's crew encountered the fire late last night when it jumped Highway 18 at Strawberry Peak. Flames burst over their fire engines, he said, but they were able to escape.

"We got really lucky, fantasticly lucky," said Kelly.

At least 10 homes burned to the ground in Rimforest.

This morning, billowing gray smoke tumbled back into the canyon below the Rim highway as the hungry fire searched for more air. Black and red flames shot out from the mass as oil burning off the scrub brush sounded like bacon in a frying pan.

West of Running Springs, flames were at Highway 18 -- Rim of the World Highway -- burning some homes and threatening Rim of the World High School.

And east of Running Springs a voluntary evacuation at 7:45 a.m. for the Big Bear Valley and Angelus Oaks.

The reason, a fire near Seven Oaks Dam was moving uphill towards the mountain communities.

If the worst happens, flames could reach Angelus Oaks by late afternoon and Big Bear perhaps in one to two days, estimated Ron Hunt of the U.S. Forest Service.

In Running Springs, fire crews were foaming houses in the town's most vulnerable areas in case the flames prevented crews from making a stand.

This morning, only meager reinforcements had reached Running Springs, in the form of 15 fire engines.

Twenty more had been promised, said Battalion Chief Wilkens.

But many more probably be needed, though there were no guarantees of their arrival because of the high demand for fire engines throughout the San Bernardino Mountains.

"They're throwing us crumbs." Wilkens said, smiling at his grim joke.

UPDATES - EAST HIGHLAND

Evacuations were mandatory north of Base Line in East Highland as firefighters set backfires that reached the fence line of some homes. The backfires, combined with cooperative winds, combined to save the developments.

John Oliver, who lives a block south of Base Line, stood in his front yard next to a mature pine tree that he cut down Monday night. Oliver, his hands stained yellow from wearing new work gloves, pointed to an ugly stump that poked out near his once-shady front porch.

"I hated to do it, but that tree is like a Roman candle," Oliver said. "It wasn't worth the risk."

Oliver's hair was mussed and his face was haggard from a lack of sleep. A blue bandanna was wrapped around his neck. Dime-sized flakes of white ash swirled in the air around him. In the backseat of his car were two laundry baskets filled with clothes and folders of papers.

"I was ready to go at a moment's notice but the wind cooperated," he said. "If it hadn't ... I wouldn't be standing here right now."

Christina Izumi made a hand-painted sign on brown paper thanking firefighters. She was helping other neighbors down the block hang up similar signs in front of their houses.

She lives just off Weaver St. south of Base Line and received a voluntary evacuation warning Monday night. She stayed with her husband, a retired police detective. There are several firefighters who live on her street so she was confident she had good information.

Helicopters circled the area late last night and broadcasted announcements.

"They said to be prepared to leave because if the backfires don't work, you'll need to go in five minutes," Izumi said. "That was scary for the kids to hear. We hope this all ends very soon."

Izumi was distressed to see so many curious motorists snaking through the area Monday night.

"I couldn't believe how many looky-loos were cruising around," Izumi said. "They didn't have the best manners. It wasn't very nice to hear them shouting. They really reacted excitement to see the show when there are people worried about losing their homes."

Oliver suspected some of the cruisers were looking for houses to loot. He packed his firearms in his truck but said he didn't fear for his safety because sheriff's deputies and local police heavily patrolled the area.

"The street (Base Line) was like a freeway all night," he said. "Where did all the people come from?"

North of Base Line on Crestview, Alyssa Pierce unloaded boxes from her sports coupe. Her house was spared from the flames but she still had a harried look about her.

Her husband, Clint Ketcherside, is a fireman and was actively fighting the blaze near Rim of the World High School.

"I'm a Chicken Little, so when they said to go, I left," she said.

Other neighbors stayed despite constant warnings from police, who circled the area with helicopters. Those who stayed were asked to give their vital information to police.

Al Gray, 47, watched as firefighters lit backfires that reached the wall of his property.

"Pretty much to the back door," Gray said. "We moved in three months ago. This is a brand-new tract."

Down the block, Raymond Moore and a friend lifted a sofa out of a U-Haul trailer and carried it into a house. Moore and his wife had closed on the house Oct. 17 and unpacked 90 percent of their belongings Saturday. When the evacuation order came down Monday night, they loaded everything back into the trailer.

"We came back at 6 a.m. (Tuesday) and when I saw my house still standing, I was so happy," said Renee Hunt-Moore.

Hunt-Moore wore a black T-shirt that said "God has been so good to me."

"I had to wear this shirt today," she said. "I was thinking it was a fifty-fifty chance the house would still be here. We've just been truly blessed."

UPDATES - LYTLE CREEK

At 1:20 p.m. Flames continued to threaten Interstate 15, this time near Mathews Ranch.

Pete Sodderquist, of the U.S. Forest Service from Winthrop, Wash said the strategy in the Mathews Ranch was to drop fire retardent to slow the fire down long enough for two bulldzers a cut a brush-free zone near the freeway.

"At this point they just need to keep it cool enough until they make the line," said Sodderquist. "The retardants buy you a lot of time. It's a great tool."

But the retardant alone won't stop the fire in this kind of dry brush. It has to be stopped by ground crews he said.

At 11:45 a.m. firefighters say they have been able to stop the fire along Highway 15 according to Capt. Ed Martinez of the Los Angeles County Fire Dept. The CHP is escorting large groups of vehicles southbound on Highway 15.

At 11:25 a.m., flames were flaring up in median Highway 15 just north of the Kenwood exit.Firefighters were rushing to respond.

The fire had burned to the edge of Highway 15 at Kenwood Avenue by 10 a.m. A 40-foot "fire whirl" came up on right side the entrance ramp and then laid down perpendicular to the ground, singed a fire engine and set grass on fire between entrance ramp and the freeway. Capt. Ed Martinez of the Los Angeles County Fire Dept said that when a fire lays down like that "people on the other side of the street can be killed even if they're 10 feet from the flame because of the heat it generates."

Fired jumped Kenwood Ave. near Interstate 15 on the eastside of freeway. The fire had been kept on the north side of the freeway, and then some of the flames got onto south side, close to homes. There was great urgency as about a dozen firefighters struggled to put out these spot fires. They threatened to spread to a field of very high vegetation that threatened homes. Firefighters yelled at media to get out the way. Television crews from France and Germany were filming the fires at this location.

"This is the worst fire we've ever seen," said Capt. Ken Goodner of the Redlands Municipal Fire Department. "It's a 100-year fire."

Goodner and crew were working to protect homes on Greenwood and Kenwood avenues in Devore Heights, where one house was destroyed.

Fire swept down a canyon behind Greenwood Avenue and firefighters were working to stop the fire from crossing Greenwood and Kenwood avenues and Interstate 15, which is closed.

Dave Betts said his wife and kids evacuated three days ago. He had just built his house on Forest Hill.

When the fire rushed down the canyon, flames leaped 30 feet above the canyon.

"There was a wall of fire 20 feet from my house," said Betts. "I knocked down a picket fence. (The firefighters) were standing 10 to 20 feet from flames. There was ash all over it, but there wasn't a single singe mark on the house. It was unbelievable. They answered my prayers."

Interstate 15 closed

The California Highway patrol has closed the closed the Cajon Pass, saying fire was jumping the freeway.

At Mountain Lakes, a pay-t-fish lake in Lytle Creek, Califorina Department of Forestry helicorpters were coming in every five minutres to load up with water, spraying the campsite with a fine mist as they gained altitude.

About 16 structures, mostly homes, were completely destroyed and about six structures were damaged overnight in Lytle Creek.

Eddie Frerich, 65, was sleeping in his 68 Chevy Malibu few yards from his burnt home. With him were one cat and four kittens. A Husky named Vaughn was tethered to the car. Frerich had the charred remains of a coyote to feed his dog.

Firefighters and a local pastror brought him food.

"I got enough for a couple of days" pointed to charred remains of a rubber hose he used in vain to save his trailer, pointed 41 Chevrolet restored that was completely destoryed

I rebuilt the engine, the transmision and put new wiring in -- all that stuff.

He lamented the loss of several personal recording made 50 years ago, including those of him singing country-western songs in 1952, his mother had given him

Frerich plans to sing karaoke at the Animal Cracker restaurant when it opens. 'What else can I do? When I try to get to sleep at night, I get distressed."

Rick Phillips, planner with PAR Electirical contractors, under contract with Southern California Edison, said there were 600 to 700 poles down in the canyons. "And we haven't even gotten up to Arrrowhead yet," he said.

He was working on 30 to 40 poles down in Lytle Creek area.

SCE officials have turned off electricity in fire-affected areas, but that doesn't mean there is no danger of electrocution. He said that when people use electric generators in their homes, it sends as much as 12,000 volts backwards through the power lines

"Don't touch anything, Always look at it as being energized."

Press-Enterprise reporters Richard Brooks, George Watson, Ben Goad, David Danelski, Orlando Ramirez, Bettye Miller, Andrew Baggerly and PE.com staff contributed to this report
SubjectAuthorViewsPosted

Historic Firestorm

katrina island 547October 28, 2003 02:20PM

Re: Historic Firestorm

Rick 270October 28, 2003 02:46PM

Another Article Historic Firestorm

katrina island 654October 28, 2003 03:18PM



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