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Big Desert Fire Could Soon Become a Mountain Blaze

Times Staff Writers

The Mojave’s unforgiving heat and winds, along with impenetrable terrain, have allowed a tiny scrub fire to chew through more than 47,800 acres of greasewood and Joshua trees, creating a wildfire that threatens portions of the San Bernardino Mountains.

Ignited by a weekend lightning strike, the blaze Thursday kept nearly 1,350 firefighters at bay, tearing through craggy ridges and gulches at the foot of the remote mountain region. The sheer size of the fire, which stretched 13 miles wide at times and flared 100 feet high, also made it difficult to attack.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jul. 15, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 15, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Desert wildfire: An article in Friday’s California section about San Bernardino County’s desert wildfires misspelled the name of a battalion chief with the San Marcos Fire Department as Rick Bogt. His name is Rick Vogt.

By Thursday night, however, fire officials delivered a glimmer of good news: The fire was 20% contained and its westward march toward the mountains had slowed to a crawl, thanks to the rocky terrain and winds blowing to the north.

At a community meeting Thursday night in Yucca Valley, state fire officials said they doubted the wildfire would reach the Big Bear area because of a large firebreak cleared by crews and wet weather in the forecast.

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“We don’t foresee any event where it blows up and goes to Big Bear,” said Rick Henson, who is leading the firefighting effort for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Still, San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies began warning residents near Lake Williams in the San Bernardino Mountains, just east of Big Bear Lake and about five miles from the fire, to be ready to evacuate.

“They didn’t expect it to get this big in the first place,” said Bill Stewart, an assistant deputy director of fire research for the state fire agency. “When you have these high winds, it changes the game totally.”

The wildfire has destroyed 45 homes and 110 other structures, mostly in the desert communities in and around historic Pioneertown, and threatens thousands more. It is probably the largest fire in that region in 50 years, Stewart said. A cluster of other fires has also erupted nearby, to the southwest, but the main fire, called the Sawtooth Complex, was by far the largest.

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Fire crews from across Southern California have concentrated on protecting lives and property and, as with most brush fires in remote areas, allowed the blaze to burn through uninhabited lands that posed no threat to outlying communities. The gusting desert winds, however, have foiled attempts to halt the wildfire’s move toward the mountains and some neighborhoods, Stewart said.

A few residents were allowed to return home Thursday as some evacuation orders, including that for Old West-era Pioneertown, were lifted. But the portion of Morongo Valley north of Twentynine Palms Highway was ordered to evacuate Thursday afternoon.

“I’ve been trying to make light of it,” said Vic Wimer, 24, one such evacuee, while flames danced just a few hundred feet away. “I’m convinced that we’re going to lose the house as soon as it comes over the ridge .... It’s amazing how quickly it can come.”

For fire officials, the biggest fear is that the blaze will reach many thousands of tinder-dry dead pines, ravaged by years of drought and bark beetle infestation, in the more populated mountain areas surrounding Big Bear Lake.

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The fire’s northern edge, just a couple of miles from the forest, was traveling dangerously fast, said Battalion Chief James Curatalo of the Rancho Cucamonga Fire Department, who was leading a five-engine team.

At a Thursday night community meeting in the city of Big Bear Lake, however, emergency officials told a packed room of concerned residents that there was no imminent threat.

“It’s a lot farther away than you think,” Randy Clauson, mountain division chief for the San Bernardino National Forest Service, told a crowd of nearly 1,000.

But if the flames do reach the trees, the wildfire could race up mountain ridges, flying treetop to treetop because of air currents, said Shankar Mahalingam, a mechanical engineering professor at UC Riverside and an expert in wildfire behavior.

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Throughout Thursday, officials were closely monitoring the smaller series of fires burning near Mt. San Gorgonio, Southern California’s tallest peak, a short distance from the bigger wildfire, fearing all the blazes would unite to create a massive firestorm.

Like the Sawtooth fire, those other wildfires were sparked Sunday morning by lightning. They have consumed at least 8,200 acres, said Lisa Jones, spokeswoman with the U.S. Forest Service.

Although the gap between the fires was mostly unpopulated canyonland, a combined blaze in the grassy region could “create erratic fire behavior and a very dangerous situation for firefighters,” said Rick Bogt, battalion chief with the San Marcos Fire Department.

To help battle the wildfires, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency Thursday for San Bernardino County, which will increase state aid to the region.

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County Supervisor Dennis Hansberger told shaken residents in Yucca Valley that his board planned to waive building permit fees for those suffering fire damage.

“It has been one of the most difficult fires to manage on the ground, largely because of the terrain,” Hansberger said. “This isn’t over.”

Eleven people, including several firefighters, have been treated for minor burns and smoke inhalation.

Only in the last 15 years have such massive desert fires become something common, thanks in part to Southern California’s smoggy skies, said Philip W. Rundel, a biology professor at UCLA who specializes in plant ecology.

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Desert blazes have traditionally remained small and contained, unable to spread easily among sparse shrub cover. But nonnative grasses have proliferated across the normally sterile desert floor, fertilized largely by nitrogen compounds in car exhaust blown east from cities, Rundel said.

Recent years of ample rainfall have worsened the situation.

“Last year we had a huge rain year; all these grasses just went bonkers,” he said.

Grasses can quickly spread flames between isolated Joshua trees and juniper bushes, and things will likely worsen, he said.

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Thursday’s cooler temperatures and lighter winds checked the wildfire’s breakneck spread, although temperatures in excess of 100 degrees are expected in the deserts in days ahead.

Officials ended mandatory evacuations for Pioneertown, Skyline Ranch, Pipes Canyon and Gamma Gulch at noon Thursday as the threat to those communities receded. Burns Canyon and Rimrock remained cleared out, and part of Yucca Valley remained under a voluntary evacuation

Firefighters pulled 24-hour shifts to battle the blaze, bedding down on cots with coyotes fighting nearby, said Brent Correggia, an engineer with the Ontario Fire Department.

Crews have struggled to fight fires in remote areas with no roads and little infrastructure, hiking to hot spots.

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Fire crews are trying to figure out where they can safely position themselves along some 30 miles of fire line, with room for engines and clear escape routes, even if that means allowing the blaze to scorch more land.

The Sawtooth blaze has been a wily one because it has moved in unpredictable ways and spread quickly, he said.

“It’s just been a crazy fire,” Correggia said.


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