Weary firefighters, aided by lighter winds, scrambled late Thursday to encircle an 8,000-acre brush fire in Cleveland National Forest that had destroyed seven structures and forced several hundred residents to flee their homes near Lake Elsinore in Riverside County.
Meanwhile, fire investigators issued a public appeal Thursday for anyone who may have seen people believed to have started the fire near a roadside store just across the Orange County line, near the crest of Ortega Highway.
With 70% of the blaze surrounded by fire lines, officials predicted that some of the 1,900 firefighters deployed in the rugged, high country along the Orange-Riverside county line may be sent home beginning today. However, because of the region's remoteness and steep terrain, officials said it may be several days before the Ortega fire, which erupted Tuesday along Ortega Highway in the mountains north of San Juan Capistrano, is fully controlled.
Nonetheless, fire officials expressed optimism that the worst may be over if favorable weather conditions hold. Unlike Wednesday night, when the fire destroyed two houses and five mobile homes in two isolated canyons, then closed within a few hundred feet of homes and businesses along the western shore of Lake Elsinore, only a few structures were briefly threatened Thursday and none were lost.
"It looks a whole lot better," spokesman Arnie White of the Riverside County Fire Department said at dusk Thursday. Referring to the stand made by several hundred firefighters against the blaze Wednesday as it advanced on Lakeland Village in Lake Elsinore, White said: "Yesterday at this time, it was cooking and burning. . . . I think that was the key to gaining an upper hand" on the fire.
So far there have been four moderate injuries, the most serious being a sprained back to one firefighter, authorities said.
Among the homes destroyed was a 300-square-foot redwood cabin that belonged to Bob Roubian, owner of the popular Crab Cooker restaurant in Newport Beach. Roubian owns 30 acres in Decker Canyon, one the area's hardest hit by Wednesday night's firestorms. The cabin had six bunks and a kitchen, and was a weekend getaway for Roubian, who lives in Newport Beach.
"It's an escape," Roubian said as he picked through the rubble Thursday. "It was so peaceful."
Thus far, officials said it has cost at least $500,000 to fight the three-day-old brush fire. Damage estimates to property and the watershed have topped $1 million, and that figure is expected to grow as investigators today begin a methodical survey of the narrow canyons and valleys where dozens of homes, ranches, barns and livestock shelters are situated.
While aerial tankers carrying water and chemical fire retardant passed overhead, officials told reporters Thursday that the blaze was either deliberately or accidentally set about 3 p.m. Tuesday along Ortega Highway near a novelty candy store just inside Riverside County. Investigators have ruled out lightning as a cause.
"It was not started by an act of God," Riverside County Fire Engineer Barton Ball said. "It was started by a human. It may have been a camper discarding smoldering charcoal, or a carelessly tossed cigarette. Or it may have been deliberately set. We just don't know. We are still investigating."
Although investigators declined to discuss specifics, they did say that at least one witness has come forward and reported seeing people, minutes before the fire, near the spot where it broke out. Officials said they believe there may have been other witnesses, and issued a public plea for anyone in the area to contact fire investigators.
Officials said one home and four mobile homes were destroyed in Decker Canyon, while one home and one mobile home were lost in nearby Long Canyon, both in Riverside County. Officials said those structures might have been spared if the property owners had followed guidelines for clearing away brush from around their homes.
'Appears They Didn't Do It'
"Failure to adequately clear the brush is the reason those homes went," Riverside Fire Engineer Ball said. "It appears they didn't do it."
Firefighters got a much-needed respite on Thursday when the blaze seemed to slow. Though flames and several large columns of smoke could easily be seen from Lake Elsinore throughout the day, no homes were in any immediate danger as the blaze, for the most part, retreated into the mountains and burned along ridgelines well above the city of 15,000 residents.