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Fire Crews Gain Ground, Race to Beat Another Shift in Weather

Wintry conditions that slowed flames' advance are not expected to last. Optimism is tempered by reminders of 'a sleeping giant out there.'

November 01, 2003|Alan Zarembo, Seema Mehta and Scott Glover | Times Staff Writers

Bone-weary firefighters gained a measure of control Friday over wildfires that have engulfed Southern California's forests and burned thousands of homes. Plummeting temperatures put a damper on the flames and brought on the season's first dusting of snow.

"There's a great air of optimism," said Gene Zimmerman, U.S. Forest Service supervisor for the San Bernardino National Forest. "We're not out of the woods, but the tide is turning, and hopefully it continues to."

Even as he spoke, crews worked to clear a wide fire line around San Bernardino County mountain resorts, hoping to protect them from flames when anticipated warm weather and strong winds return next week.

"We've got a sleeping giant out there," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Sue Exline said at a Big Bear briefing. "We've got to get these in now."

The short-term weather prognosis was mixed, with the National Weather Service issuing a winter weather advisory through today predicting rain and snow in the mountains. But it also predicted winds gusting to 40 mph and dense fog that could hamper firefighting operations.

Six fires, by some measures the most devastating in California history, continued to burn from Ventura County to the Mexican border.

So far, the fires have left 20 dead, consumed 739,907 acres, destroyed 3,335 homes and cost almost $63 million to fight. In all, more than 14,500 firefighters, many of them from out of state, have battled the blazes.

Winds have carried smoke from the fires as far north and east as the Great Plains and Great Lakes regions, according to NASA, which uses satellites to track the plumes.

Though the fires still present a danger, residents in some areas began returning to homes they were relieved to find untouched, while others discovered only rubble.

In northern San Bernardino County, Robert Fine, 67, spent Friday digging though the remains of his house, looking for salvageable belongings.

The hulk of his ruined 1927 Model T roadster sat where the garage once stood. He said he had not expected the fire to reach his neighborhood.

"We're just numb at this point," he said. "We walked out with the clothing on our backs."

The White House announced that President Bush will travel to California on Tuesday to survey the wildfires' damage.

While in California, the president will "receive an update on our efforts to assist the people of California," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said in Crawford, Texas, where Bush is staying for the next several days.

Bush has designated Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties as disaster areas, and has ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.

Gov. Gray Davis and Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared together below the charred hills of Claremont and vowed to work together to ease rebuilding efforts for families made homeless by the fires.

Davis said he and Schwarzenegger had "met some folks who have lost everything. They have no home. Their dreams went up in smoke. The least we can do is put a check in their hands and help put them back on their feet."

Schwarzenegger echoed Davis' pledge to do everything possible to help victims rebuild their lives and firefighters complete their mission. He said it was not the time to consider local officials' pleas that he reconsider his pledge to repeal the increase in the car tax, which helps fund local government. But he told fire officials they would "always have enough money."

In a related development, the mayors of the 10 largest cities in California sent a letter to Schwarzenegger, urging him to maintain state funding that helps pay for local fire departments.

The letter, signed by the mayors of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose, among others, said municipalities have already cut their own budgets and raised fees to avoid deficits. They said the fires are "tragic examples of the need to protect local governments' ability to fully fund public safety."

San Bernardino County

San Bernardino County officials said they were working to reopen mountain communities to residents who were evacuated. But they also cautioned that fire remained a threat and that the roads were extremely hazardous, with guardrails destroyed and debris scattered on the highways.

The county announced that it was establishing a one-stop emergency assistance center at San Bernardino International Airport to provide an array of government services. The center will have as many as 40 information booths staffed by various government agencies.

Sixteen bulldozers were working around Big Bear Valley, building firebreaks during the lull in the weather. Eight bulldozers were working south of Big Bear Lake, trying to cut a 64-foot-wide swath through 20 miles of forest. By Friday afternoon, they had gone only 3 1/2 miles. "It's been slow going because it's pretty rough country," said Terry Molzahn, operations section chief for the U.S. Forest Service, who is overseeing the project.

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