Weather Change Spares Forest Town

Times Staff Writer

Dennis Cunningham thought he knew fire.

On Wednesday, the veteran firefighter stood on the precipice of California Highway 18, a few miles west of Big Bear Dam, and looked to the west, where an orange glow illuminated the smoky sky.

"It'll get here," Cunningham said then. "I hope it doesn't, but chances are it will."

To nearly all the experts gathered in the Big Bear Valley, it seemed inevitable that the community would meet the fate of neighboring towns to the west. That, no matter how hard the crews worked to stop it, the Old fire would arrive soon.

Two days later, they were less sure. The fire had barely moved. The weather had cooperated, and the valley awoke Friday to a coating of frost.

"In my career, I pretty much thought I knew how fires act. This fire has taught me otherwise," said Cunningham, 53, a captain in the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

The orange glow had not reappeared. The fire remained several miles away, arcing around Running Springs, where a sign on a church advertised: GOD IS IN CONTROL. It was next to a banner for a church group with a name nobody would have chosen this week: Youth Afire.

Smoke had become smoke and fog, and firefighters were optimistic.

The turning point, perhaps, came Thursday morning. At 4:05, there was a knock on the door of the cabin where Cunningham was staying.

It was a fellow firefighter delivering a wake-up call and a weather report: 46 degrees, 46% humidity, 45-mph winds.

The winds were still trouble, but the air had dampened, and there were even reports of drizzle down the valley.

By Friday, the weather had given bulldozer crews time to clear a line as wide as a road for several miles in front of the fire. Their bosses had had time to ponder other defenses in case the fire reached Big Bear. One idea: to use the snow-making machines at the Snow Summit and Big Bear ski areas to fortify the natural firebreaks provided by the ski runs.

"There is a multimillion-gallon reservoir at the top of the mountain," said Pat Denner, a division chief for the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

The weather also gave fire crews more time to clear pine needles and woodpiles away from homes, though much of that work seemed futile with so many houses in the area built of wood and so many trees overhead.

On Cove Road, one of the crews under Cunningham's command used rakes and shovels to clear an area around a blue, cottage-style home that had a giant pine growing up through the back porch.

As a TV cameraman shot footage of them, some of the firefighters admitted that it was an exercise largely for show.

Cunningham, who started fighting fires in 1971 with a summer job on an elite "hotshot" crew, has been moving east with the flames since last weekend. He worked first in San Bernardino County, where all he could do was watch as the Grand Prix fire gobbled up house after house in the San Antonio Heights neighborhood. Then he moved on to Big Bear.

The other night, after his patrol down Highway 18, Cunningham called his wife, Rhonda, from his cell phone.

"It will be your last big fire," she told him.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"You're retiring next year."

He had forgotten about his plan to give up firefighting and devote more time to riding his BMW motorcycles.

Snow and rain are predicted this weekend for Big Bear Valley. But if the fire survives the precipitation, it could surge again early next week when Santa Ana winds are expected to pick up.

Cunningham has given up on making predictions. "It all depends on the weather," he said.

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