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A devastating blaze haunted San Bernardino for years. This time, residents were ready

San Bernardino fire
Firefighters put out a hot spot while battling the Old Water fire in San Bernardino on Thursday.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

For more than a decade, a softball-sized piece of slag has decorated the hearth inside Bonnie Petry’s Spanish-style stucco home in San Bernardino.

The obsidian-like matter she discovered in the charred remains of her house after a massive wildfire tore through her neighborhood 16 years ago serves as a memento of the home she lost and her survival.

The so-called Old fire, which began on Oct. 21, 2003, destroyed hundreds of homes in its devastating march through San Bernardino County and caused an estimated $1.2 billion in damages.

In many ways, the jagged substance left in the wake of that blaze also serves as a reminder for Petry to remain vigilant. So, when flames from another brush fire threatened to once again overwhelm her neighborhood early Thursday morning, the 62-year-old was prepared.

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She quickly dressed, grabbed her “bug out bag” and drove away from her home on Foothill Drive — on the southern end of the evacuation area for the Old Water fire.

At an evacuation center hours later, Petry said she hopes her house will have a better chance of surviving than the 1950s home with a “very flammable shingle roof” that burned to the ground more than a decade ago.

“There’s nothing I can do. I’m hoping for the best. We’ll see what happens,” Petry said.

The Old Water fire ignited just after 2 a.m. near Old Waterman Canyon Road and Highway 18 and began rapidly burning through dense brush along the hillside abutting neighborhoods. Whipped by strong Santa Ana winds, the blaze quickly consumed 75 acres of dense, dry chaparral.

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The Old fire, just a few days past its 16-year anniversary, and its devastation were on firefighters’ minds as they fought on the front lines of the blaze.

“Historically, this is the week where a lot of the bad fires in modern San Bernardino history have begun,” said Zach Behrens, a spokesman for the San Bernardino National Forest. “We have to take that history into consideration.”

Al Cline, 69, has survived six wildfires in the area over the last 25 years, including the Old fire. On Thursday morning, Cline stood on a ridgeline overlooking a patch of charred chaparral.

“Of the six fires that have come through here, I only evacuated once,” he said. “That was during the Old fire.”

The fast-moving blaze took many by surprise. Residents awakened by emergency personnel grabbed their belongings and quickly fled in the darkness.

At 3:57 a.m. Betty Hamel got a frantic call from her neighbor Betsy Bendix.

“Betty, we are under mandatory evacuation. There is a huge fire,” Hamel recalled Bendix telling her. “It’s huge.”

Hamel, 68, looked out her bedroom window on the second floor and saw a large red glow punctuated with flames. She called her adult son and 7-year-old grandson who live in her five-bedroom home.

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She dressed and grabbed a box of important documents, before running downstairs to pull framed pictures from her walls. Outside, police drove up and down David Way in her neighborhood, calling for sleeping residents to leave.

Hamel already had baby photos and other images from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s in a wicker box in the corner of her living room.

“I always knew this was going to happen someday,” she said. “Everything else can burn, but this is our life. We’ll never get this back.”

Hamel, a retired biology high school teacher, bought her house and moved in about a year after the Old fire.

On Thursday she sat in a shelter surrounded by reporters and television cameras. She said she knew they lived in a wildfire-prone area but was attracted to the inexpensive, peaceful neighborhood where she was close to nature.

“Is it worth it?” Hamel asked. “After today, I’m not sure.”

Times staff writer Louis Sahagun contributed to this report.


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