The fire broke over the mountain crest in sheets just before dawn Wednesday and whipped across the Rim of the World Highway like a cross-cut saw, foiling the plans of Fire Capt. David Shew. He ordered his 20-man strike team into their trucks and told them to roll up the windows and wait.
“A real honest-to-God firestorm,” Shew said, punctuating his story every few minutes with a sharp exhalation and a shake of his head. “The engines were rocking back and forth.”
In 17 years of fighting fire for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Shew had seen nothing like this: staring into what looked like the deepest reaches of an erupting volcano.
“With gloves on your hand, the window was still too hot to touch,” he said. Outside the trucks, he said, “you would have died.” It took 30 minutes for the fire to pass.
Since 3 a.m., tongues of fire had been making runs up the steep slopes of Highway 18, where Shew and his team had formed a line of defense for the mountain resort community of Lake Arrowhead.
The crew had been lighting fires in the tall, brown grass at the edge of the highway, hoping to burn off dry fuel and starve the unpredictable wildfire thousands of feet below.
“We knew it would come up on the road,” Shew said. “But we wanted to see what we could do to minimize it.”
It was 5 a.m. when Shew peered over the near-vertical edge and decided it was time to go. Fire was raging in a narrow ravine that funneled flames like a chimney.
Then he took a calculated risk, ordering his crew to retreat to a cut alongside the highway. It looked like a textbook safety zone, he said, a place to survive if they stayed in their trucks.
As the fire swept over them, Shew took out his digital camera and snapped a picture of another firefighter hunched in the front seat, staring at what looked like the inside of a blast furnace.
“It was more total awe and amazement,” he said. “I felt we were safe. We weren’t risking our lives, but to sit through that, with all that intensity -- I thought I’d been through some firestorms before, but nothing like that. I know this won’t make the public feel any safer, but it makes me feel powerless .... I don’t know how to fight something like that.”
The fire then raced north across the top of Heaps Peak at 6,000 feet and descended into Hook Creek Canyon, along the eastern edge of town.
Standing about two miles north of Shew, George Cooley took one look at where the fire went -- down the narrow canyon off Lake Arrowhead’s east shore -- and decided “it wasn’t worth sending anyone in there.” The San Bernardino County Fire Department battalion chief said it was too dangerous.
Down in the canyon, John Lucas, like Shew, thought he was prepared for the fire. The 38-year-old former wild-land firefighter had been preparing for days. The son-in-law of the late artist Charles Wysocki stood alone on the back lawn of the artist’s compound, a collection of three Cape Cod cottages clustered around a New England-style main house.
Lucas had spent $26,000 for his fire defense. He had 3,000 feet of thick, canvas-cased fire hose laced through the backyard and into the street. He had gallon jugs of chemical foam lined up. He had a custom-made Glock strapped to his right hip in a black holster.
A month ago, Lucas cut down 50 pines killed by bark beetles. But the trees were thick on the canyon bottom, their branches arching over and scraping the wood-sided houses that lined the road every few hundred feet. His property was one of a handful with any clearance around it. The lawn was green. He figured he had a good chance.
About 9 a.m., Lucas sent a stream of foam onto the roof of the main house. Above it, the sky turned a muddy orange and smoke boiled across the horizon.
“I got a car, a bike,” he said. “Worst-case scenario, I got a spot cleared out. If not, you’ll find my charred body.”
About a quarter-mile upwind, two homes had erupted in flames, their timbers sighing and wheezing. Flames arced through the crowns of trees with a freight-train whoosh.
The fire torched dead pines like wicks, pausing briefly on the tougher hardwoods, and tossing burning pinecones across the road. Three nearby houses were catching fire. A sign in front of one home that had so far been spared read: “It’s never too late to follow your dreams. Don’t give up.”
No fire engines came down Hook Creek Road, and the fire moved closer to Lucas. Smoke grew so thick on the two-lane road that the yellow center stripe disappeared in the haze three feet in front of a car’s bumper. Only the orange glow of burning homes, pulsing through the smoke, marked the way.
Shortly after 10 a.m., hours after overrunning Shew’s crew, the fire reached Lucas’ property and raced around the back side.
Lucas got into his black Subaru Legacy wagon and gunned it up the road.
“I’m overrun,” he said. “If I had two more people, I could’ve beat it. There’s nothing I can do.”
For half an hour more, Lucas drove back and forth along Hook Creek Road. It was hard to leave the home the painter had built.
Wysocki’s work depicted rosy-cheeked families in clapboard houses set in unspoiled landscapes. He put an American flag in every scene, and was a favorite artist of President Reagan.
Lucas’ wife, Millie, and her family lived there for 37 years.
Lucas turned back to the family compound one more time and disappeared into the boiling smoke. One of the compound’s outlying houses was burning. He returned 15 minutes later. A large canvas was in the back seat of his car. He’d retrieved a Wysocki painting hanging in a back room of the main house.
“This was one of the last pieces he did before he died,” Lucas said.
He pulled it from the car and held it up proudly. It showed a pioneer house, a stream, a ship, set in a sylvan paradise. Behind him, flames burned up the hillside into the trees.