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San Bernardino County Fire Is Ruled Arson

Safety: Investigators find several ignition points, including one on Interstate 15, for flames that charred nearly 7,000 acres and forced dozens of residents to evacuate.

June 22, 2002|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A San Bernardino County fire that roared across Interstate 15 this week was deliberately set by one or more arsonists, investigators said Friday.

"There were multiple points of ignition," said U.S. Forest Service fire information officer Ruth Wenstrom.

"One of the locations was in the center divider of the freeway," said another forest service officer, Melody Lardner.

The fire, which has charred 6,758 acres and cost nearly $2.6 million to suppress, was expected to be contained by Friday evening.

On Monday and Tuesday, dozens of residents were evacuated from the unincorporated areas of Oak Hills and Summit Valley, but no homes were burned.

The spot on the freeway where investigators believe the fire was set is about three miles south of California 138 near the Cajon Pass. Another ignition point was a private landholding in the San Bernardino National Forest called Cosy Dell, Lardner said.

Fire officials appealed to motorists and anyone else who might have witnessed the blaze in the early stages to notify them.

"We don't need to hear from everyone who came up over the pass and said, 'Wow, look at those flames,' " Wenstrom said.

"What we're looking for is people who may have driven through when the fire was, say, as small as their living room.... Maybe what they might have noticed is people in the area, vehicles in the area, activities going on."

Interstate 15 and California 138 were closed after the fire broke out about 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Thousands of drivers were forced to make their way along winding backcountry mountain roads, to detour for miles or just sit and fume.

"Most of the people ended up parked and angry," Lardner said.

The blaze, dubbed the Blue Cut fire, was named for a distinctive bluish gray rock cut in a nearby hillside. Fire investigators discovered several ignition points by retracing burn patterns and examining which way grasses bent and how trees and brush were charred, Wenstrom said.

More than 1,000 firefighters and support personnel from around the state battled the blaze. Some of the brush had not burned for 40 years.

On Thursday, a single-engine plane leased by the Forest Service crashed in a Big Bear residential neighborhood about 7:30 p.m. as it returned from the fire. The pilot was the only one aboard, and was not injured.

Two houses in the area of the crash sustained some damage to fencing and landscaping. The crash is being investigated by federal officials.

Three firefighters were hospitalized overnight earlier in the week after the fire passed over a truck they were sitting in.

On Friday, weary firefighters were waiting to be released, aware that they are facing months of particularly dry conditions that could feed more fires.

"One thing the public can do is be particularly observant," Wenstrom said. "Pay attention, write down things like vehicle descriptions, or license plate numbers, or descriptions of activities. And take the time to phone it in. it may be just the tip we need."

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