The sooty stone chimneys standing like cemetery markers for the 300 homes that just a few days ago lined Hook Creek Road couldn’t have conveyed the message more poignantly.
“This is one of the places that probably should never have been built,” said San Bernardino County Supervisor Dennis Hansberger, who toured the Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear resort communities Thursday. “I’ve always felt that if a fire ever came to Hook Creek, it could be a disaster.”
The homes along Hook Creek Road in Cedar Glen were not as big or ostentatious as the mansions that line the shores of nearby Lake Arrowhead. They had little in common with the carefully cultured “Beverly Hills of the mountains” image that has branded the mountain resort since the 1920s.
Still, to Hansberger, who camped in these mountains as a child, the neighborhood represented a kind of heedlessness.
Here was deep, moody forest with cottages and modest chalets packed tightly, too tightly, amid dense stands of tall pines beside a canyon creek. The homes were arranged two and three deep along a narrow, serpentine road descending deeper and deeper into the woods. People chose it for the quiet contrast it provided from the touristy bustle of the lakeside areas.
The way Hansberger sized up the charred remains, it didn’t appear that a lot of attention had been paid to building materials, to how easy it would be to protect the houses or to the way winds can propel fire down a canyon.
As the fire that attacked the mountain resort finally abates, Hansberger and other local officials are assessing the extent of the disaster.
Driving through the Hook Creek neighborhood in his official SUV on Thursday, accompanied by a reporter, Hansberger shook his head and bemoaned the mishmash of planning and misguided public policy that led to the grim scene before him.
As the senior elected official for the unincorporated county areas that surround Lake Arrowhead, Hansberger hopes the fire will serve as a wake-up call to the community and result in safer development and forest tending.
But Hansberger, who grew up in nearby Redlands, is not certain many people will get the message.
“Most people are aware of the danger when they move here,” he said. “They simply decided the beauty of the place was worth the risk.”
As he drove through the San Bernardino Mountains, passing scenes that alternated between pristine forest and charred, fog-shrouded chaparral, Hansberger pointed to landmarks and discussed the psychology of people drawn to the disaster-prone mountain life.
The first stop was Forest Falls, one of the mountain villages in his district.
The community straddles the Mill Creek flood plain at the center of a densely forested, narrow canyon atop the San Andreas fault. The community of 800 to 900 people endures frequent mud and rock slides. In the winter, avalanches tumble down from above. Recently, many of the town’s trees have suffered from bark beetle infestation.
“The only things I can think of that don’t happen here are hurricanes and tornados,” Hansberger said. “This is probably the most dangerous place to live in the county.”
Hansberger, like the arid and geologically unstable region he represents, is used to disaster.
In 1969, when he was a young political assistant to another supervisor, the county was hit with the worst flood in more than 40 years. A year later, the Bear fire roared down Keller Peak into Big Bear, destroying dozens of homes in its path.
In 1980, after Hansberger had been elected supervisor, the Panorama fire destroyed 250 homes in north San Bernardino. In the San Bernardino Mountains, where he once camped and where he rides horses today, Hansberger identifies different terrain by the disasters that befell it.
But before Hansberger and other officials can deal with the challenges of rebuilding safer neighborhoods, they must oversee the safe return of 45,000 to 50,000 evacuated residents to their homes in the Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear resort areas.
Hansberger said his office has already received hundreds of calls from homeowners desperate to find out if their homes are still standing.
For those who return, things may be complicated by a Caltrans report that says it could take two to three weeks to repair California 18, the main road leading up the mountain.
Hansberger declared the Caltrans assessment “unacceptable.”
“If we don’t let them come home soon,” he warned, “there are going to be real problems.”
But some problems are unavoidable, such as repairing other badly damaged infrastructure, reopening schools and hospitals and generally restoring civil society to the mountains.
“You feel relief that the immediate danger is over,” Hansberger said, “but you have to think of the struggle still ahead of you.”
At a meeting of police and fire officials Thursday in Big Bear City, Hansberger heard an optimistic briefing on progress in the fight against the fire, which had outflanked and bedeviled firefighters since Saturday.
“This is a transition day,” said Pat Denneh, a San Bernardino County Fire Department division chief. “If we can hold on today, and I think we can until the weather front comes in this weekend.”
At a news conference following the meeting, Hansberger told the story of one family in the mountainside community of Running Springs.
After the family packed up and evacuated their home, they left a note for firemen: “We are all out of the house. We have all our important possessions and our animals.” The family left their cell phone number.
At 11 p.m. Wednesday, after fire crews fought back a final fiery assault on Running Springs, a fireman found the note and called the family, telling them, “Your home is safe and the land around it has been cleared.”