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Silverado Canyon at fire's edge
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.
On its sixth day, the fire was also less than a mile from the Riverside County border. Because of rugged terrain, firefighters were battling the blaze primarily with water drops from 13 helicopters, four air tankers, and the work of hand crews. Five hundred more firefighters had arrived in Orange County, bringing the total to more than 1,600, along with 216 fire engines.
Riverside County officials said Horse Thief Canyon and the Trilogy development were the closest populated areas to the fire.
"Fuels at the head of the fire are classified as ancient and there is limited history of fire in these areas," fire officials said.
Twenty miles of the fire's eastern perimeter remained out of control and threatened crucial communications equipment atop Santiago Peak, the highest point in Orange County, in the back country behind Mission Viejo.
"We're not going to let that burn up," said Fire Authority Capt. Stephen Miller.
Several airplanes made numerous runs at the flames, diving toward the fire and making water drops, apparently saving the radio and communication towers, said Dave Niederhaus, 66, a volunteer with the Holy Jim Fire Department.
Though hampered by shifting winds, rugged terrain and the forest's bone-dry 100-year-old growth, firefighters were trying to keep the blaze from backing down the eastern edge of Silverado Canyon toward 750 homes. On a second front, the firefighters were re-plowing an 80-year-old fire road in hopes of preventing the flames from jumping a ridgeline and heading toward Lake Elsinore.
"The ocean winds blow from the west and hit mountains and stop," said Rick Vogt, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "The concern is that if the fire crosses the hill at the county line, homes in Riverside County could be in jeopardy. Should people leave now? No. If that becomes an issue, residents will be warned."
Orange County residents were urged to call a hotline -- (714) 573-6200 -- to get evacuation information.
The fire's containment had reached 35%, and authorities called the blaze "very active" with "extreme rates of speed."
Firefighters said the major danger for Trabuco Canyon was over, but fire crews were checking for hot spots that could flare up if the winds picked up.
Earlier today, two strike teams from Los Angeles County Fire were awaiting deployment instructions from battalion chiefs scouting the burn area and expected to be sent to Trabuco Canyon.
Capt. Eric Kuck, one of the leaders with the 10 engines awaiting marching orders at the entrance to O'Neill Regional Park, said some small fires were burning in inaccessible areas but the winds had died dramatically from earlier in the week. But they are predicted to pick up again Sunday or Monday, and there is still plenty of fuel to burn, he said. So the priority is to make sure every lingering hot spot and ember is extinguished, to prevent any more flare-ups threatening what has already been saved.
"They're keeping us here to make sure every spark is out," Kuck said. "This is a fuel-driven fire, not a wind-driven fire. But they say the winds may pick up. There's still a lot of little islands of fuel. There are hot spots in the burn area we are watching, making sure the houses that were saved don't get lost."
The strike teams, which worked the Malibu fire for several days before arriving in Orange County on Tuesday, are ready to go home, he said.
"We're tired. We're kind of getting burned out," he said. "We've been out for seven straight days."
The reward for help leading to the conviction of the arsonist who started the Santiago blaze rose to $285,000 with radio station KFI-AM (640) adding $100,000.
"The FBI will bring to bear all of its national resources ... to make sure that we track, apprehend and put this person or persons behind bars where they belong," Special Agent Herb Brown said.
The fire started at Santiago Canyon and Silverado Canyon shortly before 6 p.m. Sunday. Though officials previously said there were three points of origin, on Thursday they said there were actually two.
"The person or people who did this are exceptionally lucky or they have some knowledge of when they can do the most damage when you set a fire," Prather said.
Fifteen minutes after the fire was reported, it had spread three miles, officials said. By Thursday evening, it had destroyed 14 homes and eight other buildings and damaged 20 structures. Four firefighters have been injured fighting the blaze.
An Orange County sheriff's motorcycle officer sustained major injuries indirectly related to the fire this afternoon.
Nine-year-veteran Carlos Barcelos, 36, was headed to provide security at the fire when he skidded on loose gravel "probably from the firetrucks going by on Live Oak Canyon Road," said spokesman Jim Amormino. "He hit the gravel, lost control, and hit a power pole."
Barcelos, who has broken bones in at least one leg, a broken hip and possible internal injuries, is undergoing treatment at Mission Hospital.
Times staff writers Mike Anton, Tony Barboza, Jennifer Delson and J.P. Renaud contributed to this report.