Published October 31, 2003
BIG BEAR LAKE, Calif. – Firefighters wrestling with the massive blazes in Southern California got a little help Thursday as cooler weather and drizzle rolled into the area.
They had been pinning their hopes on forecasts of rain and a dip in temperatures to aid in the effort to quell the flames, which have wreaked havoc on the southern part of the state and neighboring Mexico. On Thursday, seven major fires were still blazing in four counties.
"It is helping, but it is a long way from putting any fires out," Ray Snodgrass, chief deputy director of the California Forestry Department (search) said of the better weather. "It's the respite we were hoping for."
However, the forecast also predicted gusting winds that could propel the blazes into more homes.
After burning for more than a week, the wildfires have consumed more than 2,600 homes and charred around 730,000 acres across Southern California.
• Photo Essay: Ring of Fire Surrounds Southern California
Hundreds of homes in San Bernardino and San Diego counties remained in danger, and firefighters were digging in to protect them Thursday. But only a few hundred acres of thick forest were burned overnight by one of the most devastating and volatile fires — a 50,000-acre blaze east of Lake Arrowhead (search) in the San Bernardino Mountains.
"That's minimal for this fire, considering 20,000 burned the first day," said Battalion Chief Dan Odom of the San Bernardino County Fire Department.
On Wednesday, about 350 homes in Cedar Glen in the San Bernardinos were destroyed by wind-whipped fires.
John Lucas, 38, said he was able to save three houses on his property, including the one where his wife and her brothers were born, by building a $60,000 fire system with two 5,500-gallon water tanks. The system consists of a network of hoses that keep the buildings and the grounds wet.
"It wasn't luck. My family and I expended a lot of preparation just for this scenario," said the former U.S. Forest Service firefighter.
Others whose homes were left relatively unscathed Thursday were residents of Sunset Pointe and Stevenson Ranch outside Santa Clarita (search), even though flames burned within feet of their new $400,000 dwellings.
"I'm feeling numb. I'm feeling like I dreamed this," said Marina Deeb, wearing a facemask as she talked with friends in her driveway. "I'm just very thankful to have my home, my husband and my children safe."
On Thursday morning, crews spread fire-resistant gel on houses and cleared flammable debris after the fire had advanced to within 12 miles of the mountain resort town of Big Bear. A heavy fog that rolled in overnight helped their efforts to halt the fire. The forecast called for highs in the mid-50s – a welcome relief after the weekend saw temperatures of over 100 degrees.
"So that's the good news, but there is a red-flag warning for high winds up to 40 mph," said Bonni Corcoran, a fire information officer.
But homeowners in Big Bear and other evacuated regions faced another problem – looting. Sheriff's deputies arrested four people, two of them in the act, said Sgt. Brooke Wagner of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.
Kim Robinson, 46, who lives near San Bernardino, said she saw strangers at some of the evacuated homes.
"Homeless people came and tried to make homes in some of the empty places," she said. "I guess they thought they'd stay."
In San Diego County, where the state's largest fire killed a firefighter on Wednesday, many of his comrades wore black bands on their badges. Steve Rucker, 38, died while battling a blaze that has burned more than 270,000 acres and some 1,500 homes. He was the first firefighter to die in this outbreak of fires.
"We have a somber mood and we need to be somber, but it's time to move ahead," incident commander John Hawkins told the firefighters. "Get your chin up and move out."
About 100 fire engines encircled the historic mining town of Julian in the mountains of eastern San Diego County. Saving the town of 3,500, a popular weekend getaway renowned for its vineyards and apple orchards, was the county's top priority.
Light rain, fog and drizzle were reported in Julian, but winds of 25 to 30 mph were expected throughout the day. As the winds picked up, floating embers sparked spot fires near town and forced some crews to retreat.
A blaze of more than 100,000 acres on the line between Ventura and Los Angeles counties was winding down, with cooler weather and high humidity helping firefighters knock down the flames that had come within a few feet of homes.
"I think we're going to nail this one today," said Los Angeles County fire Battalion Chief Scott Poster.
In all, nearly 12,000 firefighters and support personnel were fighting what Gov. Gray Davis (search) said may be the worst and costliest disaster California has ever faced.
The state is spending an estimated $9 million a day fighting the wildfires, a near doubling of the estimate just two days ago. The total cost of fighting the fires could reach $200 million, and the toll on the California economy has been put at $2 billion.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.