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Wind-Driven Fire Chars Homes, Closes Freeways

Times Staff Writers

Fighting stiff Santa Ana winds and triple-digit temperatures, firefighters Friday scrambled to control an erratic wildfire that destroyed four homes in Rancho Cucamonga and Etiwanda, threatened 1,000 others and forced the temporary closure of two major freeways.

Sheets of flame shot 70 feet in the air in the morning as the dry desert winds pushed the blaze out of the San Bernardino National Forest to within feet of new half-million-dollar homes north of the 210 Freeway, some still under construction.

Plumes of black smoke blotted the sky for miles and sent flurries of white ash that sprinkled cars as far as Hollywood and dusted the runways at Ontario International Airport, which remained open.

By Friday evening, the blaze had retreated into the mountains, where it was attacked by fire crews and helicopters dumping thousands of gallons of water and fire retardant.

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“It’s amazing how far the fire has come,” said helicopter pilot Cliff Walters of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, who had dropped 30 loads of water on the flames by nightfall. “I think we stopped it today.”

No major injuries were reported, but along with the four homes, the fire destroyed several cars, a boat trailer and a grounded, empty helicopter.

Hundreds of families from Rancho Cucamonga to Fontana and Lytle Creek were ordered to evacuate, and many schools were closed for the day. Several of today’s youth sporting events were canceled.

Southern California Edison also announced it may shut down power in the drought-ravaged forests in San Bernardino and Riverside counties because of the winds and extreme fire danger this weekend.

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Firefighters in San Bernardino, and those fighting smaller fires in Ventura, Los Angeles and San Diego counties, said they were preparing for the worst today and Sunday, when Santa Ana winds and hot, dry weather are expected.

“The wind is bad, but it’s not as bad as it can get,” said Capt. Jim Curatalo of the Rancho Cucamonga Fire Department. “Or not as bad as it will be.”

The 12,600-acre fire confounded Southern California firefighters for much of Friday as hot gusts of up to 50 mph fed the temperamental blaze, which has ravaged hillsides in and around the San Bernardino National Forest since Tuesday.

Lisa Cordeiro, 20, stood in front of the charred and smoky remains of her father’s rustic house in Rancho Cucamonga, where she grew up.

“He’s on vacation,” she said of her father, Tony Cordeiro, former mayor of Cerritos. “I’d like to search for valuables, but it’s still too hot to even get close to.”

Her sister, 17-year-old Sara Cordeiro, said the house -- which had no electricity and was heated by a pot-belly stove -- somehow managed to survive fires in the past: “Not this time.

“His life was in there,” Sara said of her father, saying he lost children’s trophies and a photo of himself and then-Gov. Reagan.

Gov. Gray Davis visited families at a Red Cross shelter in Rancho Cucamonga and firefighters gathered at a command post at the Glen Helen Pavilion.

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“Trust me,” the governor told the weary rescue crews. “From someone who knows something about public opinion, you are held in very high regard. No one is going to recall you.”

Under an eerily dark sky Friday morning, hundreds of families in the fire’s path -- some wearing dust masks and goggles -- debated whether to pack up pets and belongings or try to protect their homes from the encroaching blaze.

Dozens of schools closed for the day, some of them turned into Red Cross evacuation centers after San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies went door-to-door in the most threatened neighborhoods ordering people to leave.

For the last few days, Mildred Dennis watched the fire and thought the worst was over -- until a policeman knocked on her door and ordered her to leave at 7 Friday morning.

“I started packing and said, ‘Oh my God, help me,’ ” said Dennis, who moved into her house on Pacific Crest Place from Virginia 18 months ago. “I thought I was dreaming.”

Spooked by the orange glow on the horizon, Dennis hopped in her car but was blocked by smoke and forced to find an alternative route to safety. At the evacuation center at Rancho Cucamonga High School, Dennis found Disney videos blaring on TV sets and volunteers serving fast-food lunches.

Nearby, Jim and Joyce Nelson staked out space on the lower bleachers in the gym and passed the day reading John Grisham novels and Christian-themed books.

This was the couple’s fifth evacuation since they moved into their Rancho Cucamonga house in 1969. They appeared nonchalant as they described leaving Friday morning, shortly after sunrise. Flames flared within 75 yards of their property, which has survived fires, floods, earthquakes and even a tornado scare.

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“Now we just bring what’s important,” Joyce Nelson said, a list that included the wheelchair she uses, a few books and a small stack of hard-to-place papers.

But Friday night, many families were being allowed to return to homes in Rancho Cucamonga neighborhoods.

Authorities believe an arsonist set the fire, which is not expected to be contained until late next week.

Anyone who noticed suspicious activity, such as cars speeding away, between 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Tuesday is asked to call (909) 881-6900.

As of Friday, the estimated cost of fighting the fire was $1.7 million, officials said.

More than 1,400 firefighters were battling the blaze by Friday evening, including members of the U.S. Forest Service, state and San Bernardino county fire agencies and fire departments from around Southern California.

Because of blinding clouds of smoke and fire danger, the California Highway Patrol shut down Interstate 15 between the 210 Freeway and 215 Freeway, as well as a portion of the 210 Freeway, for most of the day.

Fire crews, knowing the Santa Ana winds might drive the wildfire down from the mountains and into the first line of newly constructed housing developments in the shadow of the foothills, started bracing for the worst when the fire began Tuesday.

“We launched a contingency plan developed over the past two days in case Santa Ana winds would push a fire down the mountain toward Rancho Cucamonga, which is exactly what we’re seeing now,” said Bill Peters, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry.

The fire’s assault Friday morning was the most harrowing since it began, as walls of flames raced toward homes until they were licking backyard fences.

At the Serrano Homes development in Rancho Cucamonga, homeowners stood in position, prepared to protect homes from the oncoming flames. They were amassed at every cul-de-sac near Dry Creek Road and Wilson Avenue. Hours before sunrise, San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies were barking orders to evacuate, leaving only stubborn homeowners and fire crews to greet the oncoming flames.

“What we’ve done is build a break and removed the fuel problem at the southern end of the fire,” said Jim Townsend of the Rancho Cucamonga Fire Department. The strategy worked and hundreds more within reach of the searing heat were spared.

“You just suck it up,” said Randy Meers, a San Diego County firefighter.

But not every house was spared.

Mickey Phillips of Rancho Cucamonga returned to his 2,000-square-foot house Friday evening to find only charred ruins. He said he doesn’t have insurance.

“The Fire Department told me they’d be there with a crew and a line if the fire came down. They didn’t show,” he said.

Throughout the day, residents near the fire scrambled to rouse their pets and loaded vehicles with family photos, jewelry, antiques, rifles, clothing and important documents.

In the Haven View Estates, a gated community of million-dollar homes, Felicia Lee left her neighborhood in a Mercedes S5000, but showed little concern.

“It’s getting close, but it’s not like we’re in the forest here,” Lee said. “I talked to the policeman and he said [the department] will protect my house.”

At Green Mountain Ranch, a former gold mine in Lytle Creek Canyon, authorities established a base with more than 200 people, including Department of Corrections inmates who cleared brush.

“I would have been worried if it were just me and a garden hose,” said Roy Devore, longtime owner of the ranch, which was converted to a wedding and reception center.

Football games were canceled Friday. Dozens of schools closed. “The smoke was so bad and so thick,” said Kathy Duerr, a secretary for the Etiwanda Elementary School District. “The fire was very close.” Some Inland Empire students decided to help out at the emergency centers. At Rancho Cucamonga High, teenagers entertained children with craft projects while football players unloaded donations. The other evacuation site was at the Jesse Turner Center in Fontana.

Knowing the area is prone to brush fires, developers of many new subdivisions in the northeast Inland Empire build homes with fire retardant roofs and stucco frames, and landscape with ice plants.

That didn’t provide much comfort to Colleen Ford, 33, who peered over her backyard brick wall Friday morning as flames raced west toward her Rancho Cucamonga home.

“I hope the developer was joking when they named my street Mountain Ash Court,” she said.

In Ventura County, a 700-acre wildfire near Lake Piru on Friday continued its march north into the Los Padres National Forest, fueled by low humidity and thick vegetation.

A crew of more than 400 firefighters, assisted by water-dropping helicopters, was striving to contain the fire in anticipation of weekend Santa Ana winds, said Joanna Guttman, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service. The fire was 10% contained late Friday.

Firefighters in northern Los Angeles County also worked into the night to contain a brush fire that had blackened 1,500 acres west of Interstate 5 near Santa Clarita and was moving slowly toward a community of 200 homes.

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Times staff writers Seema Mehta, Joel Rubin, Kristina Sauerwein, Scott Martelle, Gregory W. Griggs and Wendy Thermos contributed to this report.


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