JULIAN, Calif. – With swirling flames edging toward this historic mining town Wednesday, Main Street went from quaint to chaotic. Fire engines clogged roads normally filled with townspeople and tourists. Helicopters took turns ferrying buckets of water to the flames.
At the Miner's Diner, which was closed along with other businesses in town, bananas were browning on the counter. A sign strung out front read: "Thank you! firefighters. Be careful. Stay safe."
Firefighters made their stand at Julian (search), a mountain retreat northeast of San Diego that is known for its apples and pies and bed and breakfasts. Its 3,500 residents were forced to flee a fire that has destroyed 200 to 300 homes to the south, but hundreds of firefighters have so far protected downtown.
Conditions were changing rapidly because of strengthening wind, which whipped an American flag still flying outside the town hall.
At one point, some two dozen engines and water tenders heading to Julian were forced to turn back when flames swept over Highway 78 just east of nearby Santa Ysabel.
"It jumped the road back 10 minutes ago. See that tree there? It's going to go up in one minute,' said San Diego County Sheriff's deputy Dave Ingram, who was pulled to the side of the road. A moment later, flames overtook the oak tree.
Eric Atherton, a U.S. Forest Service Hot Shot firefighter (search), stood to the side watching mammoth flames eat through a canyon just north of Highway 78.
"Something like that, there's nothing we can do about it," he said. "By the time they get out and scout it and put a plan together, it's already doing something else."
Bill Bourbeau, a safety officer for the Cleveland National Forest (search), was amazed at the destruction.
"There are ranches and little communities which make it really difficult to fight a fire like this," he said. "We're still protecting property. It's almost overwhelming. It is so big, we're still trying to get a handle on the organization part of it. It just seems like it never ends."
As he spoke, an air tanker dipped down low over the mountain and dropped retardant.
"There's a lot of areas where it is just pushing through, and this is one of them. You can see how rapidly it can spread," Bourbeau said. "It's burned up so much that eventually it's going to run out of stuff to burn."
Just outside The Wright Fuel Stop and Minimart east of Santa Ysabel, fire engines were parked while crews planned their next move. California Highway Patrolman Gene Harris arrived and walked around the business, inspecting it for damage.
"My parents own this place," he said. "I'm working, but I just came up here to see what's going on."
Harris said his parents fled on Tuesday and are staying with friends. As he spoke, a column of black smoke rose from a nearby canyon.
"God, these winds are getting worse," said Harris, whose parents were anxious to check on their business and home next door.
"They were coming up to check on it today, but I'm going to tell them not to come back."
Longtime Julian resident Laura Cubberley was about the only local to be found on Wednesday. Holding her cat Pepper in a cage, she was striding from Main Street to her home to pick up some pet food and then hightail it out of town.
Cubberley, who has called Julian home for 23 years, said she couldn't bring herself to leave until now.
"I'm sorry. Call me crazy, but here I am," said Cubberley, 54, a custodian at the high school. "I love this place. This is my home. I didn't want to leave."
Pausing in the street, she glanced over the hills to a giant cloud of smoke barreling toward town.
"I just hope we're gonna make it."