For most of the past week, the main expanse of the Old fire, the name given to the blaze advancing through the San Bernardino National Forest, was south of Highway 18, the Rim of the World Highway. But Monday night, firefighters were struggling to beat down patches that had jumped the road. And before dawn Wednesday, the flames crossed the highway in two places and began a northward advance.
On the east side, the flames crossed the highway near Heaps Peak and descended into Hook Creek Canyon. From there, they burned through the community of Cedar Glen and northeastern Lake Arrowhead, destroying dozens of homes.
"The fire devastated the Cedar Glen community, just ravaged it," said Los Angeles County firefighter Dennis Cross.
To the west, the fire skirted Arrowhead, went past Silverwood Lake and headed north toward the high desert community of Hesperia. Firefighters appeared to have stopped the flames directly south of the lake, preventing, at least for the time being, an advance that many had feared would destroy the lakeside resort.
After taking on the blaze that jumped the highway near Heaps Peak, weary firefighters were forced to retreat to their vehicles.
"It's been a hell of a morning," said Dewey Rebbe, part of an elite New Mexico firefighting squad. "Winds pushed by the fire reached 70 mph."
At Arrowhead, the fire came within a mile of large estates surrounded by trees that have been killed by a bark beetles. In midafternoon, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Dennis Cross stood outside the Mountains Community Hospital, near the eastern shore of the lake, warily surveying plumes of dark smoke.
"What's also troubling right now are these erratic winds," he said. By midnight, the hospital was surrounded on three sides by fire.
Among the victories logged by firefighters was fighting off the destruction of the 500-acre Las Flores ranch, owned by Kentucky Derby-winning horse trainer Jack Van Berg. The high desert ranch, located at the head of the Mojave River in Summit Valley, is home to the oldest standing barn in Southern California, which was built in 1872. This barn is flanked by a dozen wooden farm buildings and large stands of cottonwood and plum trees.
Van Berg said fire closed in on the property Tuesday night, forcing him to retreat to a concrete powerhouse, where he convinced himself that his ranch was lost. When he emerged, the property remained intact except for several cottonwoods scorched near the Mojave River to the north. Eighty-five horses that Van Berg left grazing on his property also appeared to have survived the harrowing night unscathed.
Van Berg credited firefighters who surrounded his ranch and sprayed his buildings with fire-retardant foam.
"You have to thank the Lord that he is looking over us the way the fire was raging and rushing through us," said Van Berg as he fed his horses Wednesday afternoon. And, he said, "You have to give credit to the boys who came to protect us."
In northern Los Angeles County, wind-whipped flames threatened -- but appeared to be sparing -- about 150 homes hugging the Golden State Freeway just outside the Santa Clarita city limits.
Firefighters pounced on the advancing wall of fire at the Stevenson Ranch subdivision with waiting hose lines, halting flames within yards of recently built homes in the affluent neighborhood.
The flare-up was under control within an hour, as ridge tops continued to burn in a widening semicircle through the hilly area.
Fire teams were plagued all afternoon and evening by wind-borne embers that ignited several brush fires next to Interstate 5, only a stone's throw from large subdivisions within the Santa Clarita city limits.
Wind gusts of up to 20 mph actually helped, said Battalion Chief Bob Trowbridge of the Burbank Fire Department, because they blew the flames away from homes.
In a sign that things may be returning to normal, the Red Cross closed the last of its Simi Valley emergency shelters, at the Rancho Santa Susana community center. Since it opened on Saturday, the Red Cross had housed 139 people and served more than 4,000 meals, spokeswoman Cecilia Cuevas said.
Now the Red Cross will shift its efforts to providing clothing and money to fire victims.
"This is where the hard work begins," Cuevas said. "This is when we really provide direct outreach."
Meanwhile, crews battling a dogged 56,000-acre fire in the Los Padres National Forest said southerly winds were helping push the fire away from the towns of Fillmore and Piru. However, 400 homes on the edges of those towns were still considered threatened, and firefighters were still fighting the blaze.
To add to the jitters induced by fire in recent days, Simi Valley and San Fernando Valley residents experienced three minor earthquakes Wednesday. There were no reports of damage from the temblors, which ranged in magnitude from 2.8 to 3.6, in the mild-to-moderate range.
Southland fire coverage contributors
Contributing to the fire coverage were Times staff writers Fred Alvarez, Hector Becerra, Patricia Ward Biederman, Miguel Bustillo, Stephanie Chavez, Carolyn Cole, Amanda Covarrubias, Richard Fausset, Sue Fox, Megan Garvey, Scott Glover, Anna Gorman, Gregory W. Griggs, Carla Hall, Christine Hanley, Daniel Hernandez, Steve Hymon, Daryl Kelley, Mitchell Landsberg, Jack Leonard, Caitlin Liu, Eric Malnic, Seema Mehta, Geoffrey Mohan, Monte Morin, Sandra Murillo, Tony Perry, Stuart Pfeifer, Gary Polakovic, Lance Pugmire, James Ricci, Joel Rubin, Louis Sahagun, Kristina Sauerwein, Ann M. Simmons, Doug Smith, Jocelyn Y. Stewart, Julie Tamaki, Wendy Thermos, Nancy Vogel, Spencer Weiner, Kenneth R. Weiss, Janet Wilson, Tracy Wilson, Nancy Wride, Nora Zamichow and Alan Zarembo.