Published October 29, 2003
| Associated Press
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – Angry, frustrated, and exhausted, yes. But not shocked.
Evacuees of raging wildfires that have ripped across the San Bernardino Mountains (search) this week say they've been expecting the fires and getting ready for some time.
Forest fires are an almost annual occurrence in these mountains, which dry out all summer providing ideal fuel when the hot Santa Ana winds (search) rake Southern California in the fall. This year, a drought combined with millions of dead and dying trees devastated over the past year by voracious bark beetles, made wildfires almost inevitable.
In a series of meetings in mountain communities this summer, residents were told to cut trees and brush around their homes, pack emergency bags and make evacuation plans. Some took loads of belongings out of the mountains and put them in storage. Others worked to remove dead trees and brush within the 820,000 acre forest that is home to about 80,000 people.
"We prepared as best we could," said Patricia Wells, a mother of two teenagers from Crestline. "I've been packed for two years with emergency clothes and papers."
Best of all, said Wells, gazing at the smoke-covered hills from the parking lot of an evacuation center, she bought extra fire insurance.
"If we burn, we burn," she said.
One thing she couldn't plan for was her children's reactions.
"My son is having a hard time," she said. "This morning I think it finally sank in that we are refugees."
Fire experts have been warning of the dangers all summer. The precarious situation around Lake Arrowhead (search), a resort community surrounded by dead trees, was mentioned during congressional hearings.
Survivors, however, said nothing could have prepared them for the magnitude of the disaster they're now struggling to overcome.
"We're all absolutely heartbroken," San Bernardino County Supervisor Dennis Hansberger said. "We've been working for several years to make this forest safe, and these are our worst fears being realized today."
At the evacuation center, Chris Silvas of Lake Arrowhead organized her belongings in the back of her pickup.
"My emergency bags, they've been part of my living room decor since January," she said. "But we still hoped for the best. It's hard to imagine this would actually come."
Nearby, Crestline resident Ray Bailey said he cut trees and cleared brush around his home and had cages standing by so he could save his four cats.
"The flames were big and fast," he said, "but we were ready."
Barbara Brown of Devore said she wasn't so lucky. When the orders came to leave, neither she nor any of her neighbors could grab their pet pig.
"We lost little Harley," she said.