Fires Unite but Veer From Big Bear

Times Staff Writers

A massive wildfire heading directly toward Big Bear Lake was diverted Friday as nearly 3,000 firefighters, aided by a shift in winds, beat back the inferno in temperatures reaching 112 degrees.

Fire officials said there seemed little chance that flames would reach the resort community and other forest towns in the San Bernardino Mountains, which remained under an ominous shroud of gray smoke most of the day.

"With the winds and weather and the work being done by the firefighters, the probability of the fire reaching Big Bear is low," said Tracey Martinez, spokesman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

"But we are keeping a close eye on the fire and are prepared to respond wherever it goes."

By Friday afternoon, the 59,000-acre Sawtooth Complex fire combined with a second, 10,000-acre blaze that was barely half a mile away, a minor setback for fire officials.

They feared that the firestorm's blistering heat could affect weather patterns and cause the fire to behave erratically, although the combined blaze will allow for a streamlined firefighting effort.

"What it will do for us is we will have one fire and not have to fight on two fronts," said Becki Redwine of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The Sawtooth fire ignited after a lightning strike Sunday and has grown swiftly, sometimes consuming hundreds of acres of desert per hour. As many as 1,000 people were evacuated and 56 houses and 163 other buildings were destroyed. But firefighters had managed to dig lines around parts of the blaze, which was 35% contained.

Mandatory evacuations remained in effect Friday for Burns Canyon, Rimrock and a small area of Morongo Valley with about 20 homes, officials said. Evacuation orders were lifted for Pioneertown, Skyline Ranch, Pipes Canyon and Gamma Gulch.

The fire, which had been visible from Yucca Valley and Highway 62 in Morongo Valley, was burning away from major population centers. Firefighters supported by constant helicopter and air tanker sorties had largely extinguished flames in and around Pioneertown, which has seen the most destruction.

Many of the 341 residents returned to the historic Wild West themed-town Friday to check on their property.

Despite the massive destruction of fences, garages, landscaping and desert plants, most of the homes suffered little external damage. Many sat surrounded by desert and blackened Joshua trees.

Some weren't so fortunate. There were incinerated homes with nothing left but a spiral staircase, a birdcage, a wheelbarrow and, in one case, a rubber Ronald Reagan mask that somehow survived.

Scott Pasby and Ted Bigley came home expecting the worst but didn't find it. Not that there weren't problems.

Their back fence, the grape vines, the big brass elephants, the picnic table, the gazebo, the Jacuzzi and tiki bar were torched. But the house was unscathed.

"I feel very, very relieved and very, very happy. I got off pretty darn lightly," said Pasby, 47, an artist.

Firefighters hoped to dig a 30-mile fire line around the blaze, but their efforts have been hampered by strong winds and rugged terrain. So far, roughly 3,000 firefighters from all over the state are involved.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared San Bernardino County a disaster area.

The fires created air quality considered unhealthful in the Coachella Valley and portions of the San Bernardino Mountains. Officials with the Air Quality Management District urged people in those areas to exercise caution and avoid unnecessary outdoor activities.

With the fires stalled several miles to the east and south of Big Bear, firefighters in the San Bernardino Mountains went on the offensive Friday morning, cutting roads and clearing brush from rural homes and crucial communication towers atop Onyx Peak, about 15 miles east of the resort community.

However, U.S. Forest Service authorities called a halt to the work -- and a plan to cut a fire break 12 miles long and two bulldozer blades wide -- about 12:20 p.m. to avoid unnecessarily damaging wildlife habitat and archeological sites.

"We're starting to make some progress [on the fires] ... so we don't want to build this contingency unless we have to -- 'dozer lines leave some pretty ugly scars on the ground," said San Bernardino County Fire Department Battalion Chief Larry Busby, surveying curtains of smoke rising from the desert below the 9,100-foot-high peak.

At YMCA Camp Arbolado, just off Highway 38 south of Big Bear, about 180 children from the Orange County YMCA were enjoying their visit in the woods, but their camp manager was carrying a scanner to monitor the situation.

"We've been assured by fire officials that our camp is not in danger," said Bob Warnock, camp executive director. "It would take an almost unnatural act of nature for the fire to come to where we are."

Fire officials said they cannot estimate when the blaze will be fully contained, and said the fire could still march toward mountain forests and ignite vast stands of 100-foot-tall beetleravaged trees surrounding the Big Bear area.

The fire "remains dangerous and troublesome for us. There are no roads, and finding places to put hot shot crews is extremely complicated," said Battalion Chief Steve Seltzner of the U.S. Forest Service.

The 31,000-acre Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, just south of Twentynine Palms Highway, remained out of harm's way, said site manager Betty Zeller.

But the fire was less than a half a mile from Morongo Valley, a small community surrounded by mountains where firefighters were working a backfire they built in the eastern hills to protect homes along the mountainside.

"There's no access to the fire up in those areas [on the other side], so we have to wait for it to come down," said Mitch Villalpando, deputy fire chief for the Sycuan Fire Department of the Kumeyaay Nation in San Diego. "We kind of want to wait until the fire's almost down here and then send it right back to itself."

Randy Godfrey, a real estate agent whose home is just beneath the range that burned Thursday, said he had grabbed the guitars in his Morongo Valley house and scrambled to evacuate.

"This whole place looked like a giant volcano had exploded.... But the threat's gone now," said Godfrey, who was so confident his home was safe that he was on his way to see "Superman Returns" in 3-D.

But first, he was dropping off ice to two of his clients, Tom and Sharon McKinney of Pioneertown, who lost their Mediterranean-style home Tuesday and had found a place to stay in Morongo Valley.

Then they heard a knock on the door. It was sheriff's deputies -- asking them once again to evacuate.


Times staff writer Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.

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