Worst of Fires Now Mostly Under Control

Times Staff Writers

One week after wildfires exploded across Southern California, the largest blaze in Ventura County was contained late Saturday, the two fires in San Diego County were expected to be under control by Monday, and Big Bear area residents might be able to return home today.

"We deserved a break from Mother Nature, and we finally got one," said Bill Peters of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, almost euphoric over the inch of rain that fell on the Simi fire Friday night.

Rain and even a dusting of snow all but stopped the relentless march of flames from six fires that have left 20 dead, consumed 690,967 acres and destroyed 3,346 homes since Oct. 24.

Fire officials also were optimistic because there were few flames in the San Bernardino Mountains, even though plumes of smoke continued to rise and tree trunks smoldered. The outlook was so promising that about 200 fire engines and 700 firefighters were sent home and the evacuation order for residents of the Big Bear area was expected to be lifted at 8 a.m. today.

Firefighters said the weather had been the turning point, as it often is in such big blazes. And the National Weather Service's forecast for this week calls for cooler temperatures.

Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper said the change in the weather had been critical in finally containing the 116,984-acre Simi/Val Verde fire Saturday evening.

"The whole north end of the fire was in rugged terrain, and we didn't have any resources to send, or it would have been weeks before we did. It now has a snow blanket on it," he said. "The sad thing is that ... after a firefighter dies and hundreds of homes burn, the weather can change so dramatically. Why didn't it do this two days before?"

Even as the flames died down in San Diego County, the controversy over the initial responses to the Cedar and Paradise fires was growing. More than 338,000 acres were burned and 16 died in those blazes.

Voicing a sentiment that is becoming common among politicians reviewing how agencies responded, an unsmiling Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego) said firmly in an interview, "Changes will be made."

One already had. On Saturday, two CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters from the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar dropped water on the Paradise fire in the Valley Center area. It was the first time military equipment had been permitted to fight the fire because of state Forestry Department training rules.

A spokesman at Miramar called the move "the beginning of a new era."

An issue not yet resolved is what to do about tens of thousands of dead pine trees -- infested with and weakened by bark beetles -- still standing in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Jack Blackwell, the regional forester with the Forest Service, predicted that more federal money would become available to remove some of the trees and that more firebreaks would be cut in the San Bernardino National Forest.

"My great hope is that these fires in Southern California are a turning point in how we view public policy on these federal lands," Blackwell said.

Ventura County

Officials at a fire command post in Moorpark were euphoric over the sudden change in fortune involving the Simi fire.

Friday's storm dropped nearly an inch of rain over the remnants of the 108,204-acre fire, which had destroyed 37 homes and damaged 11 others. The season's first storm also blanketed Ventura County's northern mountains with 4 inches of snow and slowed the 63,991-acre Piru blaze, which was 80% contained.

Weary crews were leaving the Moorpark post in droves after tearing down a tent city.

About 100 firefighters will continue to patrol and mop up the fires where needed, Peters said. Hundreds left the lines late Friday to battle other blazes or to go home.

Tension and long hours of work gave way to jokes and back-slapping at a Piru fire camp Saturday. Sean Norman, who had worked long hours on the fire lines for eight straight days, was eager to return to his home in Butte County in Northern California.

He had already worked out his priorities: He would see his girlfriend, have a steak and then drop into a long, deep slumber.

San Diego County

At a town hall meeting in Valley Center, where the Paradise fire began, government and fire officials faced more than 600 residents in a gathering where emotions were raw and confrontations frequent.

Residents complained about a lack of resources at the local fire station, a lack of information on where those who lost homes could turn for help and a lack of support to start their own volunteer fire brigade.

They said they would be better prepared for the next wildfire if there were more fire stations serving the rural area.

Officials admitted that they could not answer all the questions.

"I can't really solve that one right now," Supervisor Bill Horn told a woman who asked why no local or state agency had yet agreed to provide support for her neighborhood's volunteer response team.

"We don't know what to do," said Carmen Ortega, 50, whose mobile home burned. " ... And we need to find somewhere else to live."

The questions about San Diego County fire agencies' level of preparedness promise to dominate the political agenda in coming weeks.

One of the most bitter controversies involved the decision by the state Forestry Department to forbid military helicopters from Miramar from dropping water on the Paradise fire in its early stages.

Officials said military crews, although experienced in fighting fires on the base, lacked state-authorized training.

San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman may provide the City Council with a report this week on how well firefighters performed in battling the Cedar blaze, which destroyed 345 homes in the pricey Scripps Ranch neighborhood.

The firefighters union is preparing its own report, emphasizing a lack of equipment and transportation needed to fight the fires. The union has long insisted that the city skimps on fire protection. San Diego has one of the lowest ratios of firefighters to population of any large U.S. city.

On Tuesday, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and the Port Commission, in separate meetings, will discuss the region's lack of a full-time firefighting helicopter. The city of San Diego leased a helicopter for four months this summer, but the lease expired just days before the Cedar fire erupted.

Port Commissioner Peter Q. Davis, a local banker who lost a bid for mayor of San Diego in 2000, has already announced plans to challenge Mayor Dick Murphy in the March primary, with fire protection as an issue.

Although media attention has focused on Scripps Ranch, the small community of Crest and the threat to the mountain town of Julian, some of the most severe damage occurred on 11 Indian reservations, where 30,000 acres burned. The Barona Reservation lost 31 homes and the San Pasqual Reservation 67.

"Indian country has taken a devastating hit," said Ernie Stevens Jr., chairman of the National Indian Gaming Assn., after a tour of the reservations. "At Viejas, everything is burned. Everything."

The emotional pull that the county's back country exerts on many San Diego residents who enjoy camping, backpacking and other outdoor pleasures made the loss of so many homes and so much acreage even more painful.

"The back country is a place of the heart for many of us," said Ernie McCray, a retired San Diego school principal. "We've had to watch a place of dreams become a place of nightmares. We've got to come together to overcome this."

Many people across the region will come together in an interfaith service at 4 p.m. today at First United Methodist Church of San Diego in Mission Valley. The service will be called "Faith in the Face of Fire."

San Bernardino County

Fire officials began cautiously scaling back their forces Saturday.

But the dueling forces of fire, rain and snow proved to be a mixed bag. The California Highway Patrol reported that Highway 18 and other roadways had been blocked in several spots by mud and rockslides and that ice-slick roads had been made even more treacherous because guardrails had burned.

Mandatory evacuation orders remained in place for the communities of Big Bear, Running Springs and Lake Arrowhead as officials pleaded with residents to stay away. But officials hope to remove the ban for the Big Bear area this morning.

"The roads are impassable and more treacherous than ever," CHP Officer Lee Nunez said in San Bernardino on Saturday morning. "The weather has suppressed the fire but unfortunately is making the roads impassable with mudslides."

Fog the same color as smoke continued to hover over parts of the mountains. Temperatures by evening had fallen below freezing and winds were calm, a stark contrast to the heat, low humidity and high winds that propelled the fires toward Lake Arrowhead and Running Springs a week ago.

By Saturday, crews had built 47 miles of firebreaks around Lake Arrowhead and constructed more breaks to help protect Running Springs. The Old fire was 45% contained and was expected to be fully under control by Nov. 8.

Many other residents managed to find a way home by dodging CHP barricades on the main roads into the mountains and instead taking bumpy dirt roads that had been left unguarded.

Six people had been arrested for looting by Saturday, said Craig Harris, a San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy. "It's not a big epidemic, but they were telling people on the radio to leave their doors open in case the firefighters needed to come in, and I guess some people are taking advantage of that," he said.

All of those arrested were Lake Arrowhead residents. At least two people were arrested for impersonating fire officials. Harris said they had attempted the ploy because they were desperate to return home.

Times staff writers Steve Hymon, Daniel Hernandez, Daren Briscoe, Allison Hoffman and Stephanie Chavez contributed to this report.

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