Homeowners desperate to learn the fate of their mountain cabins can tune in to the television, pick up the newspaper and pester a firefighter. But when all else fails, there's always Ranger Al.
His name isn't even Al -- that's from his middle name, Alwin -- but the bespectacled 66-year-old who was born Neil Alwin Nottingham has become the mountain sleuth of fire damage around Lake Arrowhead.
A retired firefighter who has lived in the Arrowhead area for more than 40 years, Ranger Al defied evacuation orders last week and hunkered down in his home on Forest Shade Drive near Lake Gregory's western shore, fielding calls from evacuated residents awaiting word about their property.
Throughout the wildfires, he kept his generator fueled, answered his telephone, then hit the road with friend Lloyd Stevens, 46, who sneaked up a few days ago on fire roads to help.
The two tracked down addresses and relayed information to Ranger Al's son, Dacy Nottingham, who posted the latest updates on his Web site, Fireupdate.com.
Dacy started the Web site last week just to keep family and friends informed of the fire, road closures, evacuation orders and the like. But in the year-round residential community, family and friends soon expanded to 18,000 visitors a day, 2,000 e-mails and countless telephone calls, he said.
"It became this massive thing," said Dacy, who maintains the site from the back supply room of his Riverside sandwich restaurant, Hogi Yogi, where computers map out the burn area, damage and addresses of burned or saved homes.
"It's incredible the response we've gotten. We're about the only way to get news from up the mountain. Most of the media are gearing their information to the general population, and the general population doesn't care if a specific house burned. The evacuees do."
Evacuees found the site while browsing the Web, and word spread. Soon, disaster officials, politicians, AM radio hosts and firefighters took to calling Dacy with updates or with their own questions, he said.
For example, the Lake Arrowhead school board contacted Dacy on Monday to let him know that those registered to take the SATs scheduled for last Saturday would be rescheduled. Dacy also posted that the 7-Eleven in Crestline was open -- and that gas was $1.59 per gallon.
Dacy pulled up a long list of addresses on one screen. "Every one of these has been visually checked by Ranger Al," he said.
On a typical reconnaissance mission, Stevens snaps photographs that he transmits from his Internet business to the younger Nottingham, and Ranger Al phones his son with the latest from the grapevine.
"We get calls like, 'Can you check on Loop Drive?' " Ranger Al said. "We go and see that Loop Drive is all gone."
Ranger Al gets by roadblocks through charm and old friendships forged through years of living in the woods. He knows a lot of firefighters, after working for a decade as a U.S. Forest Service "hotshot" firefighter in the area, then 30 more years with the Los Angeles City Fire Department.
But in the past few days, Ranger Al and Stevens have been turned back by California Highway Patrol officers who don't know them, they said.
"Sunday was the first day they stopped us from getting around," Ranger Al said. Still, they managed to find back roads or a willing co-conspirator to smuggle them through.
"When you've been here as long as we have, you know every fire road," Stevens explained.
On Monday, the duo hitchhiked into Cedar Glen with a reporter and surveyed scores of homes burned when the fire jumped Rim of the World Highway and barreled over Heaps Peak, running down into Hook Creek and Deep Creek canyons.
They found a cabin on Maple Drive standing amid a dozen or more foundations. Its gray paint was blistered and a porch light had melted, but it stood, its backyard littered with charred stumps that had been carved into the likenesses of bears and other animals. A two-story yellow house next to it also stood, at Juniper and Maple. Almost every other structure within 200 yards was an ashen foundation. Further along on Alder Lane, a house marked "Oviatt/Ochs," numbered 299, also survived. Stevens entered it all on his palm-top computer.
Next, it was off to find Glen Avon Road, which wasn't even marked, to chase a rumor of three cabins burned. They found no such damage.
"It's hard, because some people don't even know where they live," Ranger Al said. "They just looked at the lot when the real estate agent showed it to them, and they make up an address."
Ranger Al and Stevens stopped at the Cedar Glen Malt Shop, a shingled diner-style restaurant built in 1946. Peggy Magurean, who hitchhiked up the mountain with a logger, approached their white Nissan Pathfinder. After they told her what they were doing, her jaw dropped. "Are you Ranger Al?" she asked. "Nice to meet you, Ranger Al."
Magurean invited the pair in, and they stood around a wall heater -- 45-rpm records dangling from the ceilings, old automobile ads still intact on the pink walls -- and reminisced about malts and dates in his high-school years.
"We're hoping to be open by Friday if we can get food by Thursday," Magurean said.
Ranger Al and Stevens stopped on the way out to ask a police officer when Cedar Creek would be open to the public. Not for at least another day, he said, but check back tomorrow. They parted with a wave and a nod.
When he got back to the Lake Gregory area, lights were on in stores for the first time since the fires started. All that was good information, and Ranger Al picked up the telephone to report it to his son in Riverside. Then he answered one call after another. "Well, we left two hours ago, and when we came back, the lights were on all over Lake Gregory," he told one caller, then politely said goodbye.
"I have no idea who that even was," he said, chuckling.