Fire Crews Gain Ground, Race to Beat Another Shift in Weather

Times Staff Writers

Bone-weary firefighters gained a measure of control Friday over wildfires that have engulfed Southern California's forests and burned thousands of homes. Plummeting temperatures put a damper on the flames and brought on the season's first dusting of snow.

"There's a great air of optimism," said Gene Zimmerman, U.S. Forest Service supervisor for the San Bernardino National Forest. "We're not out of the woods, but the tide is turning, and hopefully it continues to."

Even as he spoke, crews worked to clear a wide fire line around San Bernardino County mountain resorts, hoping to protect them from flames when anticipated warm weather and strong winds return next week.

"We've got a sleeping giant out there," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Sue Exline said at a Big Bear briefing. "We've got to get these in now."

The short-term weather prognosis was mixed, with the National Weather Service issuing a winter weather advisory through today predicting rain and snow in the mountains. But it also predicted winds gusting to 40 mph and dense fog that could hamper firefighting operations.

Six fires, by some measures the most devastating in California history, continued to burn from Ventura County to the Mexican border.

So far, the fires have left 20 dead, consumed 739,907 acres, destroyed 3,335 homes and cost almost $63 million to fight. In all, more than 14,500 firefighters, many of them from out of state, have battled the blazes.

Winds have carried smoke from the fires as far north and east as the Great Plains and Great Lakes regions, according to NASA, which uses satellites to track the plumes.

Though the fires still present a danger, residents in some areas began returning to homes they were relieved to find untouched, while others discovered only rubble.

In northern San Bernardino County, Robert Fine, 67, spent Friday digging though the remains of his house, looking for salvageable belongings.

The hulk of his ruined 1927 Model T roadster sat where the garage once stood. He said he had not expected the fire to reach his neighborhood.

"We're just numb at this point," he said. "We walked out with the clothing on our backs."

The White House announced that President Bush will travel to California on Tuesday to survey the wildfires' damage.

While in California, the president will "receive an update on our efforts to assist the people of California," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said in Crawford, Texas, where Bush is staying for the next several days.

Bush has designated Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties as disaster areas, and has ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.

Gov. Gray Davis and Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared together below the charred hills of Claremont and vowed to work together to ease rebuilding efforts for families made homeless by the fires.

Davis said he and Schwarzenegger had "met some folks who have lost everything. They have no home. Their dreams went up in smoke. The least we can do is put a check in their hands and help put them back on their feet."

Schwarzenegger echoed Davis' pledge to do everything possible to help victims rebuild their lives and firefighters complete their mission. He said it was not the time to consider local officials' pleas that he reconsider his pledge to repeal the increase in the car tax, which helps fund local government. But he told fire officials they would "always have enough money."

In a related development, the mayors of the 10 largest cities in California sent a letter to Schwarzenegger, urging him to maintain state funding that helps pay for local fire departments.

The letter, signed by the mayors of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose, among others, said municipalities have already cut their own budgets and raised fees to avoid deficits. They said the fires are "tragic examples of the need to protect local governments' ability to fully fund public safety."

San Bernardino County

San Bernardino County officials said they were working to reopen mountain communities to residents who were evacuated. But they also cautioned that fire remained a threat and that the roads were extremely hazardous, with guardrails destroyed and debris scattered on the highways.

The county announced that it was establishing a one-stop emergency assistance center at San Bernardino International Airport to provide an array of government services. The center will have as many as 40 information booths staffed by various government agencies.

Sixteen bulldozers were working around Big Bear Valley, building firebreaks during the lull in the weather. Eight bulldozers were working south of Big Bear Lake, trying to cut a 64-foot-wide swath through 20 miles of forest. By Friday afternoon, they had gone only 3 1/2 miles. "It's been slow going because it's pretty rough country," said Terry Molzahn, operations section chief for the U.S. Forest Service, who is overseeing the project.

On the north side of the lake, other bulldozers were cutting fire lines around the small community of Fawnskin. In almost deserted Big Bear, boats, campers and vintage cars were clustered in the center of a shopping center parking lot to protect them in case fire swept through.

Not far away, Matt and Janine Carey, who stayed behind when the town was evacuated, squabbled over whether to leave their trailer park. He wanted to stay and she wanted to go. Their aging Mercury Cougar was packed and ready.

"Even if the danger is not imminent," she said, "the town is shut down. You can't go to the store. You can't do nothin'. And I'm out of smokes."

Late Friday afternoon, California Highway Patrol officers reopened California Highway 38 to residents of Forest Falls and Mountain Homes Village, hamlets about 30 miles from San Bernardino. But Big Bear remained off-limits and CHP officers said people had been trying to get around the roadblock.

"People have been trying all day long to sneak up the back roads to Big Bear," said Officer Randy Threet, who was manning a roadblock. He said some people had tried bribing CHP officers with doughnuts and other treats. He also said that one man grew so irate that he was nearly arrested for shouting obscenities.

In the hamlet of Devore, which abuts the San Bernardino National Forest, residents also were returning.

Greg Schreiner, 43, was evacuated Sunday afternoon and returned Wednesday to find nothing worse than ash on the lawn in front of his small white, ranch house with pale-blue trim.

Schreiner, who lives alone, said he had heard from a neighbor that his house was still standing, but he stayed away until the evacuation had been lifted.

He said he was relieved to have the evacuation over, because "it was a mess. They put you on this big roller coaster. No one knew what was going on. It's a big relief to be back."

Nearby, Gary Leiterman, 52, said he and his family were already packed up when they were evacuated Sunday. He said they spent their whole time away thinking, "Are we going to have a house to come back to?"

"You run a whole gamut of feelings," Leiterman said. "It's really a lot of stress on you until you get back in your own house in your own bed."

San Diego County

Sheriff's investigators said the death toll from the Cedar fire is almost certain to rise, predicting they would find the remains of recluses living in remote areas and illegal immigrants.

"There's more of them out there," said Sgt. Conrad Grayson, head of the Sheriff Department's bomb and arson squad. "That's a given."

Grayson said loners live in remote regions of eastern San Diego County, where even their homes would be difficult to find. "These are places where the directions to get to their house are 'turn left at the big white rock, then right by the big oak tree with a gouge in it,' " he said. "Nobody sees them. They want to be left alone."

Lt. Roy Heringer agreed, saying he also was concerned about people who were unable to leave because of medical conditions. "I do suspect that when fire crews are done mopping up, we'll find folks in their homes," he said.

Grayson said he suspected that illegal immigrants hiding in the mountains also had been killed by the fire, which ripped through several well-traveled smuggling routes. "They had no place to go," Grayson said, noting that the people would have been on foot and unfamiliar with the terrain.

Border Patrol officials said they have flown over several areas used by smugglers to bring in illegal immigrants since the fires roared through, but have not found any human remains. Border Patrol officials also said many of the trails used by smugglers appear to be intact.

No structures were reported destroyed Friday as firefighters reported "excellent progress" in containing the blaze. Like elsewhere, drizzly weather helped in beating back the fire.

"We are beginning to move from evacuation mode to recovery mode," said Sheriff Bill Kolender.

San Diego County officials announced the formation of a task force to look into "the initial fire suppression" efforts aimed at the Cedar fire, which erupted last Saturday and destroyed 2,207 homes and burned 275,833 acres.

The task force will include representatives of the governor's Office of Emergency Services, the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The goal, a spokesman said, is to "identify any opportunities to improve fire response and communication among the cooperating agencies."

As the fires recede, the questions about the actions -- and inactions -- of fire departments in the first hours of the Cedar fire has increased.

One of the more controversial issues is the refusal of the U.S. Forest Service to allow helicopters from the San Diego County Sheriff's Department to dump water on the fire last Saturday night and a similar refusal by the California Department of Forestry to allow Navy helicopters to dump water on Sunday afternoon.

But firefighters who battled the blaze predicted that the task force will find that a major reason for the rapid spread of fire was thick brush that homeowners had declined to clear away, and also wood roofs on many homes.

"Five hundred years ago, the Indians knew this was a fire area and they built nonflammable structures," said Rancho Santa Fe Fire Chief Erwin Willis. "So here we are in 2003, and we still haven't learned that lesson."

The lack of helicopters and fixed-wing aerial tankers in the first two days of the fire has left many local officials fuming. County Supervisor Dianne Jacob called the aerial response "too little, too late."

Ventura/L.A. Counties

With firefighters in Ventura County gaining the upper hand on the stubborn Simi and Piru fires, some crews began to relocate to other fire-scorched areas of Southern California.

About 350 firefighters left the fire lines near Fillmore, where crews continued to battle a 63,991-acre blaze burning northeast into Los Padres National Forest. The Piru blaze was 40% contained by noon Friday, and officials were concentrating their efforts on the fire's eastern flank, where flames had marched to within about three miles of Interstate 5.

Although the fire continued to creep westward within the national forest, officials said low winds and cool weather -- which included light rain and a dusting of snow near Frazier Park -- had combined to diminish any threat to Ojai or Santa Paula.

Crews had contained 85% of the Simi fire, which had burned 108,304 acres , and so far has cost $6.8 million to fight. About 50 firefighters were reassigned from that fire to the Old fire in the San Bernardino Mountains. Firefighters were concentrating their efforts on the fire's eastern flank, where hot spots continued to flare along Interstate 5 in Los Angeles County, near Calgrove Boulevard, just below Stevenson Ranch.

Full containment was expected by Tuesday, and firefighters expressed optimism as rain clouds moved into the area. In a show of progress, efforts switched to controlling erosion and runoff in charred areas, as crews spread hay and planted sandbags in anticipation of rain.

"I don't believe we're going to have any major impact in a negative way," said John Wade, a public information officer for the Ventura County Fire Department. "I think we're in pretty good shape down there."

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Fire coverage contributors

Contributing to the fire coverage were Times staff writers Fred Alvarez, Hector Becerra, Daren Briscoe, Stephanie Chavez, Amanda Covarrubias, Megan Garvey, Christine Hanley, Daniel Hernandez, Allison Hoffman, Peter Y. Hong, Daryl Kelley, J. Michael Kennedy, Mitchell Landsberg, Jack Leonard, Eric Malnic, Seema Mehta, Geoffrey Mohan, Jennifer Oldham, Tony Perry, Stuart Pfeifer, James Ricci, Joel Rubin, Kristina Sauerwein, Ann M. Simmons, Jocelyn Y. Stewart, Julie Tamaki, Janet Wilson, Nora Zamichow and Alan Zarembo.

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