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California

Raging Blue Cut fire leaves some homes in smoldering ruins, but scope of loss still a mystery

Blue Cut Fire
A firefighter works to defend structures on Lytle Creek Road on Wednesday night.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The tiny stone home was little more than a blackened shell. The only hint of its former occupants: a metal bed frame, a shattered toilet seat, charred tin cans.

Nestled along Lone Pine Canyon Road, a narrow, twisting thoroughfare, it was a bleak symbol of all that has surrendered to the raging fire that continues to terrorize the Cajon Pass.

But for all the devastation that the Blue Cut fire has wreaked, officials have had difficulty determining the damage left by explosive flames that quickly overtook nearly 36,000 acres.

Damage assessors have been hindered from surveying the destruction because of erratic fire behavior and intense flames that broke through retardants dropped by air crews, Eric Sherwin, an incident-response spokesman with the San Bernardino County Fire Department, said Thursday.

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Fire swept through numerous remote hillsides and canyons, burning some structures to the ground but sparing others nearby.

Officials continue to say only that “numerous” buildings have been lost but are unable to estimate how many of those are homes. They said among the hardest hit were in  West Cajon Valley and Swarthout Canyon, where deputies arrested three people suspected of stealing a vehicle from a residence.

On Thursday, there was a chilling silence in some areas where the fire had marched. The earth around a section of Highway 138 was scorched, power poles blackened, their wood splintered. A gentle wind stirred up ash, sending it swirling along the ruins.

A pinwheel spun in a backyard, near the smoldering carcass of a home. Nearby, in a garden, a sign creaked, swaying gently in the breeze.

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“The kiss of the sun for pardon 

The song of the birds for mirth

One is nearer God’s heart in a garden 

Than any place else on earth”

Crews are now focused on communities west of the fire, such as Lytle Creek and the mountain resort town of Wrightwood, which is dotted with apartments and small homes and has the highest housing density in the area.

Firefighters have centered efforts on Lone Pine Canyon Road, the back door into Wrightwood, in hopes of preventing the blaze from jumping over the ridge. Still, gusty winds, high temperatures and low humidity persist and could create the same challenges that have haunted crews since the fire broke out Tuesday.

Although the Blue Cut fire calmed slightly overnight and halted its march north and east, it spread more than 4,000 acres Thursday, measuring 35,969 acres. The fire is just 22% contained, and a red flag warning remains in effect.

Some signs of progress were evident Thursday. Mandatory evacuations were lifted in several communities, and Caltrans reopened the 15 Freeway, a key trucking and commuter route that runs from San Diego, through the Inland Empire and across the Mojave Desert into Nevada. Its two-day closure had contributed to massive congestion, creating nightmares for both travelers and those trying to evacuate.

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Raw video from Blue Cut fire near the Cajon Pass.

Highway 138, another major roadway in the area, was expected to remain closed until further notice, according to the CHP.

Along Lytle Creek Road on Thursday, sunlight highlighted fire retardant-covered ridges and caution tape fluttered in a light breeze outside evacuated homes. 

Resident Maria Hadaway, who chose to stay, likened the deserted stillness to an episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants” in which the eponymous cartoon character wakes up alone in his town.

“That’s me. I’m SpongeBob in Bikini Bottom,” she said. “I’m hoping they let everyone [back] up here, because I don’t like being alone.”

Still in her pajamas, the 62-year-old sat in front of her home with a neighbor.

Hadaway said she stayed because of her dogs. She’s been feeding neighbors’ dogs as well, she said.

When authorities arrived to ask residents to evacuate, Hadaway locked the door, closed the drapes and didn’t answer.

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Those who evacuated find themselves mired in uncertainty. 

“I don’t want to be blindsided again,” said Sheri Sladwick, 46, who lost a home to fire 13 years ago.  

Now she hears conflicting reports about whether fire ran through her neighborhood in Lytle Creek and doesn’t know what to believe. She is frustrated that there have been few specifics about the damage.

Fire crews in the Cajon Pass have likely had difficulty determining the number of homes lost because of safety concerns and protocol that grants wildland firefighters the right of way over those damage assessors, according to fire experts.

“Engines have to get to the homes and other areas,” said Sam Lanier, a former fire captain who founded a site that offers real-time updates on wildfires throughout the country. “If multiple vehicles are there, it’s hard to get out.”

The standard guidelines say that life is prioritized first, followed by property conservation and environmental protection, Lanier said. When it comes to protecting specific areas, crews look at what will help mitigate the firefight, never at what is considered the most valuable.

“There is no pre-made map to say we’re going to protect this area first. Firefighters are blind to the cost. The job is to go and save as much as possible.”

The California wildfire season, once confined to autumn, has found itself stretched earlier and later, with hundreds of homes and eight people killed in wildfires already this year.

Fire agencies have been overworked, some of its firefighters working with no sleep while thrown into battles fueled by triple-digit temperatures, wind and desiccated tinder.

There is no pre-made map to say we’re going to protect this area first. Firefighters are blind to the cost. The job is to go and save as much as possible.
Sam Lanier, expert on wildfires

James Bailey, who has lived near the Cajon Pass for about 40 years, drove up to an area community center Thursday. He was relieved to find it still standing, although its surroundings had been singed.

“Everything around it is just like a moonscape,” he later informed his wife.

The couple had stayed put in their trailer park mobile home having faith in its metal frame and concrete base, although took care to douse the property with water.

A day earlier, Bailey had marveled at the flames, smoke and fire coming from behind Mountain Lakes Resort.

“When it came over the hill, it had to have been 100 feet tall,” Bailey said. “I can’t believe how big the flames were. The whole mountain was red.”

The activity taking place around them for the last two days has been unsettling.

Water drops from air tankers, sirens from fire engines, blades rotating on helicopters — all sounded eerily, they said, like war.

brittny.mejia@latimes.com

angel.jennings@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

corina.knoll@latimes.com

Mejia reported from Phelan; Jennings from San Bernardino; Vives from Wrightwood. Times staff writers Shane Newell in Phelan and Sarah Parvini, Matt Stevens and Matt Hamilton in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

6:25 p.m.: This article was updated with current statistics on the size and containment of the Blue Cut fire.

4:35 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details and editing.

1:30 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with new information from fire officials and details from residents.

This article was originally published at 11:10 a.m.


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