Firefighters Take Advantage of Break in Weather

A break in the weather Friday may have given firefighters a crucial edge over the blazes that have ravaged Southern California.

Thanks to fog, lower temperatures and tamer winds, all of which contributed to stemming the spread of flames, firefighters could take time to bulldoze buffer zones to protect mountain communities. So far, wildfires have killed 20 people, destroyed more than 2,800 homes and burned nearly 750,000 acres across the region over the past week.

Officials, however, cautioned that the recent progress against the wildfires could be undone with yet another shift in the weather. Forecasters have said heat and dry desert winds that helped create the deadly infernos could return early next week.

"We've got a sleeping giant out there," Forest Service spokeswoman Sue Exline said.

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The forecast for the weekend is calling for up to 6 inches of snow to fall in the mountains by Saturday evening. Winds gusting to 30 mph were also expected.

Officials pulled most firefighters off the line for the night Friday as temperatures were expected to drop into the low 20s.

Big Bear Lake, a resort town in the San Bernardino Mountains (search) northeast of Los Angeles, remained in danger. A blaze that has scorched 95,000 acres and burned down hundreds of homes moved to within six to eight miles of the town. Some 15,000 people had been evacuated from the area earlier in the week.

"The fire is just creeping around, not making these big runs that we had seen," Exline said.

Fire crews raced to cut 30 miles of firebreaks to protect communities surrounding the lake, removing brush and trees from zones 100 feet wide to deprive the fire of fuel. The firelines were as close as 50 yards to some homes.

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"This is an opportunity," Exline said. "We can get in there in the next 48 hours to fight the fire on our own terms, without the forces of the weather."

In all, seven fires were still burning across four counties. Winds have carried the smoke as far north and east as the Plains and the Great Lakes, as satellite images from NASA have shown.

The largest blaze — 275,000-acre fire burning in the mountains northeast of San Diego — was 65 percent contained. Firefighters said the threat had eased against Julian, an old Gold Rush town that is now a weekend getaway flush with apple orchards.

"If I was a betting man, which I'm not, I'd say the town is pretty safe — safe from burning but not safe to come back in," said sheriff's Sgt. Steven Wood.

As the danger seemed to ease, people who had fled their homes began clamoring to return amid reports of looting and trespassing.

Three women held signs in San Bernardino, hoping to convince authorities to let them return north to Crestline.

"I want to go back now," Rita Guarneros Sample, 52, said as she held a sign reading, "Stop the Looting. Let us back in our homes."

Friends told Sample her home had been broken into Wednesday. But when she tried to return to Crestline, she was stopped by police, she said.

San Bernardino County sheriff's spokesman Chip Patterson denied that looting was a problem in the mountain communities affected by the fire.

"As far as criminal acts going on, with burglary and looting, no, it's not happening," Patterson said.

While thousands have fled the Big Bear (search) area, a few people stayed behind to protect their property.

Kelly Bragdon sat at the bar at the Log Cabin Restaurant, sipping a beer and watching news reports of flames blazing through the forest.

"I've got too much to lose to leave here," Bragdon said. "I don't think we're jeopardizing anybody's lives but our own, just trying to save what we've got, everything we've worked for."

Craig Brewster, owner of the Robinhood Resort hotel just off Big Bear Lake, stayed in town and opened up his place for firefighters.

"It's a ghost town right now, strange," he said. "It's a weird feeling. We'd typically be getting ready for trick-or-treaters."

Ellen Bechtol, 43, looked to the dark clouds over the mountains and hoped the cooler weather would tame the raging fire. Bechtol and her family were evacuated from Running Springs on Sunday and have been living at the evacuation center at the San Bernardino Airport, waiting for word about when they can return.

"To sit here and worry about tomorrow is going to stress me out too much," she said. "It could be definitely worse, but I believe God will take care of us."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.