Fire Toll Rises as Evacuees Begin Picking Up the Pieces

Times Staff Writers

The body of Novato firefighter Steven Rucker was escorted in a solemn procession of fire engines Monday before being flown to Marin County, as the death toll from Southern California’s fires rose to 22.

A continuing spate of cool, damp weather helped suppress the blazes, which were largely contained after blackening more than 740,000 acres of timber and brush and destroying more than 3,500 homes.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Nov. 05, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Firefighter -- A photo caption in Tuesday’s California section referred to the casket of Steven Rucker, the Novato firefighter overtaken by flames last week near Julian, being wheeled aboard a transport plane. The casket was being carried.

Thousands of residents returned to the fire areas Monday, some finding their homes intact, others finding charred ruins. More than 27,000 people were still displaced. At the peak of the fires, more than 80,000 had been evacuated, said Carl Dewing, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services

The two new deaths were attributed to heart attacks suffered during the blazes in the San Bernardino Mountains. Officials identified the victims as Robert Taylor, 54, of San Bernardino, who died Saturday, and Ralph McWilliams, 67, of Cedar Pines, who died Sunday.


Because the fires in which they died are blamed on arson, anyone charged with setting the blazes also could be charged with murder, San Bernardino County prosecutors said.

Forty-six fire engines and hundreds of uniformed firefighters accompanied Rucker’s body as it was carried in a hearse to Gillespie Field in San Diego.

“There’s a tradition: No firefighter goes alone,” said Janet Marshall, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry. “You don’t leave a fallen comrade.”

In keeping with that tradition, four officials from the Novato Fire District, including two men who were with Rucker when they were overtaken by flames Wednesday near Julian, accompanied the body as it was flown in an Air Force cargo plane to Northern California.


Laurie Styler, who had been staying at a friend’s house near Alpine when flames raged dangerously close, said she came to pay her respects.

“They saved my life. They saved a lot of people’s lives,” the 40-year-old nurse said. “It’s a terrible way to go.”

El Cajon Fire Capt. Ken Oeland, 47, said it made no difference that few of the people there Monday had met Rucker.

“We all know him because he’s one of us,” Oeland said. “He gave the ultimate, and we’re here to thank him for it. We know that some day we could very easily give our lives the same way he did.”


White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said President Bush will take a helicopter and walking tour of the San Diego County fire areas today. Gov. Gray Davis and Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger have been invited to join the president, McClellan said.

On Monday, Davis announced the formation of a commission to review the firefighting efforts and make recommendations on how to minimize the loss of life and property.

“A disaster of this magnitude should never happen again,” Davis said. The commission will include firefighters, community officials and representatives from federal, state and local agencies, Davis said.

Meanwhile, the San Manuel and Morongo bands of Mission Indians announced that they are donating $1 million apiece for fire victims in the city of San Bernardino, tribal members who lost homes in the fires and the Riverside chapter of the American Red Cross.


“We are reaching out to help our local neighbors at a time of need and a time of crisis,” said Deron Marquez, chairman of the San Manuel tribe, which operates the San Manuel Indian Bingo Reservation in San Bernardino County and lives on a reservation near Highland.

Morongo Tribal Chairman Maurice Lyons said his tribe feels empathy with fire victims forced to live in tents and temporary shelters.

“As a tribe, we know what it’s like to be like that, because it was not long ago that we were like that,” Lyons said.



San Diego County

California Department of Forestry officials predicted containment of the 280,000-acre Cedar fire by this morning and containment of the 56,000-acre Paradise fire by Saturday. Together, the fires have destroyed more than 2,400 homes.

San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy called Monday for a municipal ordinance requiring fireproof roofs in all new construction and an increase in the city’s brush-management efforts.

“While we did an excellent job, we always can look at things we could do better,” Murphy said.


Murphy praised the city firefighters “for getting everything possible out of the resources we have,” a reference to the city’s history of lean budgets for the Fire Department.

City Councilman Jim Madaffer said he was not interested in listening to criticism by the county’s Board of Supervisors on how the fires were fought.

“This fire should not be measured by what went wrong, but for the incredible successes,” he said.



San Bernardino County

“I’m sad, because it don’t look like our mountains any more,” San Dahsells said. “It’s all burned. It’s all burned up.”

Dahsells was one of thousands who returned to their homes in the San Bernardino Mountains on Monday, but the return wasn’t easy.

First, they had to queue up at the bottom of the mountains while San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies checked their identifications to make sure they were residents.


Once cleared, they couldn’t take California 18, the most direct route from Southern California’s major urban centers to the resort communities in the mountains northeast of San Bernardino.

Rockslides, downed trees and fallen power lines still blocked that route, so they had to go the long way, around through Cajon Pass and up from the Mojave Desert on California 138, a narrow, twisting road that was blanketed with fog and drenched with rain Monday.

Many arrived for their first shocking view of homes that had burned to the ground. But for most, the overwhelming impressions were relief at finding their properties intact and revulsion at the stench of food that spoiled when the power was cut off more than a week ago.

Jim Olds said he was “celebrating the cleaning out of my refrigerator.” Olds, 60, was one of the regulars who began trickling back into the Old Town Pub in Crestline. The bar had served as a bunkhouse and staging area for firefighters at the height of the wildfires.


Olds said the smell at his house was pretty bad, “but I’m delighted to find that after a tense week, the neighborhood is intact and there are squirrels and birds in the trees.”

Next door, Pung Gil Lee, 59, reached behind a soft drink display and flipped the switch that turned the power back on at his Hilltop Liquor Market.

“Finally,” he said, “I’m open for business.”

In the hillsides, a black bear cub found walking on its knees and elbows because of burned paws was taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center by state Fish and Game officials.


“Its burned paws were not blistered, just singed,” said Department of Forestry forester Phyllis Banducci. She said the bear would be released into the wild after it has healed.

Although residents were returning to Crestline and Big Bear, officials didn’t let people back into Lake Arrowhead, Running Springs, Green Valley Lake, Cedar Glen, Crest Forest, Rim Forest, Twin Peaks and Arrowbear because of the lack of power, water and telephone service.

Officials said that by nightfall, the Old fire and Grand Prix fire in the San Bernardino Mountains were almost entirely contained after burning more than 150,000 acres and destroying more than 1,056 homes, commercial structures and outbuildings.

The San Bernardino County district attorney’s office has filed felony charges against three suspected looters, officials said Monday.


Robert Wayne Dennis, Donald Ray Payseur and Patthaya S. Wattanachinda were charged with first-degree residential burglary. Dennis and Payseur also were charged with receiving stolen property.

A 55-year-old Colorado man, John Gilbert Herrera Jr., was charged Monday with stealing about $5,000 worth of firefighting equipment from Defense Department property near San Bernardino International Airport.


Ventura County


As hot spots dissipated in the mountains of Ventura County, U.S. wildlife biologists managed to get into the backcountry and check on the California condors reintroduced there as part of a decade-long, $35-million recovery program.

All but one of the 41 birds that roam California were accounted for, said the biologists, who have equipped the birds with radio transmitters.

“The condors seem to have weathered the firestorm and are back to business as usual,” said Marc Weitzel, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.

The fires in Ventura County scorched about 172,000 acres near Simi Valley and Fillmore.



Times staff writers Eric Malnic, Hugo Martin, Kenneth R. Weiss and Janet Wilson contributed to this report.