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Bear Invasion Brings Family More Woes

Challenges: Daughter's cancer is followed by loss of home to a fire started by bruins.

September 15, 2002|DEBORAH SULLIVAN BRENNAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FOREST FALLS — The Pendleton family's August vacation was a long-awaited escape from their troubles: the young daughter's brain cancer, her endless doctor visits, and, not least, the bears that had besieged the family's home here at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains.

But trouble was waiting for the Pendletons when they got home. A day after they returned, the pair of black bears that had already charged their daughter and ransacked their kitchen in previous months slipped into the house one more time. While the family was out grocery shopping, a mother bear and her cub knocked over a halogen lamp and set the house ablaze--incinerating the home and perishing in the process.

Now the family is living with relatives while they try to rebuild their home, their lives and their daughter's health, with the aid of a community that has rallied to their cause.

The Pendletons' misfortune is an extreme consequence of the bargain residents of this forest community have struck with nature. In exchange for the beauty of the wild land, with its craggy canyons and ancient white fir, they accept the risks of living with wildlife.

"It made me really sad that my home was destroyed and two bears lost their lives," Kelly Pendleton said. "I choose to live here, so I can't get angry at them."

The family's problems began last fall when 10-year-old Tiffany began suffering severe headaches, a lazy left eye and unsteady gait, her mother, Kelly, said. An MRI revealed that she had astrocytoma, a cancer that had formed a tumor in her brain stem.

Days later, she underwent surgery to remove most of the growth. The small amount remaining was inoperable, but radiation treatments stemmed its growth, said her pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. Daniel Won.

The surgery and subsequent treatments left the child with facial palsy, eye problems and lingering sores on her lip and nose. She missed the remainder of her fourth-grade school year.

By summer, Tiffany was in remission, with "a very good prognosis" for a long-term cure, Won said. She was looking forward to returning to school in the fall. The local firefighters named her "Little Miss Forest Falls" at the town's annual chili cook-off in July. She accepted the title in a gown and rhinestone tiara.

But trouble was lurking. In June, Tiffany had left the house to walk to her grandmother's nearby home, then raced back in, screaming that a mother bear with a cub had charged her. Kelly went out to investigate and was greeted by the furious mother bear.

Over the next few weeks, the bears broke into the family's Honda Civic, poked into their kitchen window, and then squeezed entirely through it, rummaging through the refrigerator and devouring $300 worth of groceries, Kelly Pendleton said.

Bear problems had been mounting in Forest Falls, on the road to Big Bear Lake, for months. Bears have visited the wooded community for decades, but this summer they seemed more aggressive, local fire officials said.

"They're much less scared of people than they were before," said Eric Sweetman, a fire prevention officer with the U.S. Forest Service. Repeat exposure to people might have eroded their natural caution, and drought may be driving them to desperation in a search for food.

The mother and cub that harassed the Pendletons had reportedly ransacked other homes as well, said local fire Capt. Tom McIntosh.

Once a bear breaks and enters, it is subject to state laws that allow the public to kill predators that damage their livestock or property.

Under those provisions, the Pendletons received a permit to trap the mother bear and cub that had hounded their household, said California Fish and Game Warden Rick Fischer.

The mother and cub eluded capture, Kelly Pendleton said, although several other bears were trapped and released.

With the bears still at bay, the frazzled Pendleton family decided to drive up to the Monterey coast for a getaway from looting bears and the medical issues back home.

"We wanted to take [Tiffany] away and give her a break from everything--her tumors, the stress of the bears, all the doctor visits," Kelly Pendleton said.

Wary of the bears' return, the family boarded their kitchen windows and cleared their cupboards.

The family had just returned from their vacation when they went out to buy groceries. During their absence the bears returned and apparently burst through the front door and knocked over a halogen lamp, said Al Flores, a fire investigator with the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

The lamp set fire to the wood floor, and the house went up in flames. Through the smoke, firefighters spotted the mother bear asphyxiated in the bedroom, the cub curled up dead on the bathroom floor.

Blackened roof tiles now droop over the hole where the family's living room once stood. Twisted box springs and charred furniture lie in a heap in their frontyard, near piles of smoke-stained clothing.

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