Desert Wildfire Keeps Gaining

Times Staff Writers

A runaway wildfire that has already charred more than 37,000 acres showed little sign of slowing Wednesday as firefighters fought to save lives and property in the 108-degree heat and gusting desert winds.

Started by lightning Sunday morning, the fire pumped huge clouds of black, white and gray smoke over the mountains and deserts, forcing many to flee their homes clutching photo albums, pets and other irreplaceables. About 100 structures have been destroyed or damaged, including more than 40 homes.

Firefighters said continued high winds not only fanned flames but also made it difficult to fly fixed-wing aircraft because of turbulence.

Now called the Sawtooth Complex fire, it is so vast it has created its own weather patterns in some areas. It is also burning in remote, steep canyons where even helicopters find it hard to maneuver.


The result has been more than 1,200 firefighters from all over the state pouring into Yucca and Morongo Valleys battling the blaze largely on foot and in the searing heat.

“We want to tell people if you are in an area and are given orders to evacuate, please evacuate,” said Rick Griggs, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “Get your valuables and have your car parked in the direction you want to go.”

In the nearby San Gorgonio Wilderness, four other lightning-sparked wildfires flared up Wednesday, burning more than 2,000 acres and threatening to combine with the big blaze. Less menacing wildfires also broke out near Anza in Riverside County and Joshua Tree National Park, as well as in Kern County, all of which were quickly contained.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in Sacramento, urged residents to be cautious and heed evacuation orders, and praised firefighters for working in such harsh conditions.


“It is extremely hot and windy down there, which is perfect conditions for wildfires,” Schwarzenegger said. “But we have more than 1,000 firefighters on the scene, and they are doing an incredible job, working around the clock to bring this fire under control.”

Griggs said he had no idea when the Sawtooth Complex blaze might be reined in, although fire officials reported it 15% contained by Wednesday evening. At least eight firefighters and two civilians have suffered minor injuries; the firefighters were treated and released.

Residents of historic, Old West-themed Pioneertown, along with Burns Canyon, Rimrock, Gamma Gulch, and Skyline Ranch were ordered to evacuate, and voluntary evacuations were called for parts of Morongo Valley and the city of Yucca Valley.

“We are dealing with lives and property right now,” Griggs said. “There is no silver lining to this cloud.”


Officials said more than 30 miles of fire line would be needed to contain the flames, but creating it will be extremely difficult because the terrain is tough to reach by bulldozer. Firefighters have to hike in and cut the firebreaks by hand.

A few miles from Yucca Valley, Pioneertown was surrounded by scorched desert, with majestic Joshua trees burned like huge, black torches. The old downtown, where such movies and TV productions as “The Cisco Kid,” “Annie Oakley,” and “The Adventures of Judge Roy Bean” were partly shot, suffered no visible damage, but homes scattered on the fringes of town have been hard-hit, fire officials said.

The road in was closed by San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies, leaving many residents wondering if their homes made it through the night.

“I helped people move their valuables out, but at one point it felt like it was 250 degrees around me,” said John Dunn, 36, who owns property in Pioneertown. “This is a wake-up call for me about buying houses in the wilderness.”


Even with flames approaching fast, however, not everyone left.

When deputies knocked on her door and said it was time to evacuate, Anitra Ekstrom politely declined. She and her partner, John Ziagos, began dousing their barn and house with water, sometimes getting it from the hot tub and their pond.

“It was a little bit like hell,” she said calmly. “Like a furnace.”

But she believes that staying put and watering down their home saved it.


Pioneertown, population 341, was eerily quiet Wednesday. The old, wooden post office, which claims to be the most photographed in the country, was shut, its flag whipping in the wind. Choking clouds of black ash drifted over the church.

Up and down Pioneertown Road, dozens of trucks and fire crews struggled to save homes. Helicopters, sometimes five at a time, converged on blazing Joshua trees and creosote.

Firefighters struggled but ultimately failed to save an old trailer. It didn’t look like much, but it had been home to Justus H. Motter since 1979.

When told of its demise, the 89-year-old’s face fell.


“It’s all gone?” he asked. “All my personal things were in there -- my wedding pictures, the pictures of my niece. It’s an awful loss.”

He grew quiet for a moment, then turned to his nephew.

“Did those tires go up?” he asked, referring to an old pile of tires near his trailer. When told yes, Motter smiled weakly.

“Good, I’ve been wanting to get rid of them for years,” he said.


The Red Cross set up an evacuation center at Yucca Valley High School, where it provided food, water and cots for about 35 people.

The organization set up a second such center later at Big Bear Elementary School near Big Bear Lake.

At the Yucca Valley center, messages were pinned to the wall. Some sought lost horses. Most looked for lost people.

“Lee and Michelle -- call me -- let me know how you are!” said one. “Tom Willers call Lindy” read another.


Edward Johnson, a 69-year-old retiree from Pipes Canyon, spent a restless night Tuesday waiting to hear if his 86-year-old wife, Daisy, made it out. Johnson was gone fishing when the wildfire flared up and wasn’t allowed back to his home.

When firefighters finally brought Daisy to the shelter Wednesday afternoon, he was ecstatic.

“I was happy as hell,” he said. “The house could almost be replaced, but not her.”

Early Wednesday, backfires were lit on the mountains by firefighters trying to stem its march downward.


By late afternoon, the entire backsides of mountains glowed an eerie, flickering orange as fires intensified with each gust of wind.

“Everything that can make a complex fire is lined up here,” said state fire official Karen Guillemin. “You have the winds, the steep canyons and the low humidity.”


Times staff writer Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.