Water Drop

The battle to save Silverado Canyon was fought in the air with numerous helicopters circling in for water drops past sundown. The choppers managed to confine the advancing flames to several ridgetops above Silverado Cayon. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times / October 26, 2007)

As authorities pleaded today with the public to identify the driver of a white Ford pickup truck seen near the origin of the 27,600-acre Santiago fire, 100-foot-tall flames burned into the eastern section of Silverado Canyon on Friday, moving erratically along its steep walls but so far sparing the 750 homes in the rural community in east Orange County.

"It's an extremely active fire in Silverado Canyon right now. Things are pretty rough," said Rich Phelps, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman. But flames were still one mile from the closest home, the fire was 35% contained, and officials were optimistic about their chances during the night because of favorable winds and cooler temperatures.

"In terms of the threat to the community, that's the best fire behavior we can wish for," said battalion chief Patrick Antrium.

Most of the homes are along Silverado Canyon Road, which snakes seven miles up the canyon. In the deep reaches of the community, small wooden homes are lined up side-by-side like matchboxes, and tree canopies turn the narrow roads into leafy tunnels. By midday, five strike teams braced for the worst, and in the evening, the blaze crested a ridge and crept partly down the hillside of a side canyon. Water-dropping helicopters halted their efforts at nightfall, and earlier, smoke grounded air tankers that could have made larger drops of fire retardant to slow the blaze's spread. About 40 residents refused to evacuate.

George Nagelin was one of them, and he was the picture of calm. Outside his home, while sheriff's deputies sped by in cruisers and went door-to-door in a last-minute sweep, the 80-year-old was hosing down his car in his dirt driveway, with no plans to leave.

Nagelin, a retired landscaper who bought his one-story home 41 years ago for $10,000, was among the stubborn residents who refuse to evacuate.

"When you get to be 80 years old, your house is all you got," he said. "All your friends are dead."

Earlier in the day, firefighters scrambled to coat homes with fire-resistant white gel, to remove flammable materials such as propane tanks and wood piles, and to evacuate lingering residents as thick plumes of smoke billowed into the sky.

Authorities are no longer allowing residents, to go into the far reaches of the canyon. A sign outside a community center reads, "God please save our canyon."

Tensions visibly ratcheted among firefighters as water-dropping helicopters buzzed over the area almost every minute.

"The engines are all in place and they will hang on as long as they can," said Rigo Castro, a fire engineer with the U.S. Forest Service. "We still have time."

Authorities sought the public's help in finding a white Ford F-150 pickup that was seen in the area where the arson fire was ignited on Sunday.

"We are chasing down lots of tips, this one was impressive enough to present to the public," said Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather. "This is a fairly common vehicle. Investigators are using an array of techniques to track down the driver."

About 50 Orange County sheriff's deputies spent an hour this afternoon scouring up to 100 homes. Many refused, according to Sgt. Jim Greenwood.

Chay and Brett Peterson, who live on Wildcat Road off Silverado Canyon Road, refused to evacuate earlier this week. But after a sheriff's deputy knocked on their door this afternoon, they relocated to the Calvary Chapel of the Canyons about two miles away.

"When [the firefighters] look like they're moving on to plan B, and they have that look in their eyes, that makes me scared," Chay Peterson said.

About a hundred canyon residents gathered in a strip mall parking lot dubbed "Camp Silverado." When fire officials could not provide detailed information about the fire's path, some broke down in tears.

"It's sickening," said Ray Verdugo, 55, who has been sleeping in a camper in the parking lot with other evacuees. "We thought yesterday we had dodged the bullet, we heard the fire was 50% contained and away from Silverado Canyon. Now we're hearing that within the hour it could rip through here and take our homes."

Though Silverado Canyon, with its steep walls, narrow roads, mature trees and chaparral, is a potential tinderbox, it had managed to escape major damage from wildfires in modern times. It was untouched even by the 1967 Paseo Grande fire, which blackened nearly 49,000 acres and burned 51 homes mostly in the canyons and foothills of east Orange County. The blaze was marching toward Silverado, but it changed directions at the last moment and burned Black Star Canyon.