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Wildfires Destroy 200 Homes

Thousands Evacuate as Flames Scorch 50,000 Acres

October 26, 2003|Janet Wilson, Lance Pugmire and Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

Wildfires driven by winds and high temperatures burned out of control Saturday in the San Bernardino Mountains, triggering firestorms that destroyed more than 200 homes in foothill suburbs and forced the evacuation of thousands of residents from San Bernardino to Rancho Cucamonga.

Stoked by Santa Ana winds that knocked firefighters off their feet and grounded water-dropping helicopters and airplanes, scattered fires covered more than 50,000 acres from Ventura to San Diego counties and raised a ceiling of thick black smoke that spread ash for miles. In all, more than 4,000 firefighters were deployed and more than 13,000 homes threatened.

Two San Bernardino men were reported dead, apparently from heart attacks, Saturday--one as he tried to evacuate and another as he watched his house burn. They were identified as James W. McDermith, 70, and Charles Cunnigham, 93. Firefighters searched smoldering homes overnight for residents who might have failed to escape.

Firefighters, who had already labored for days in triple-digit temperatures, faced their gravest challenge Saturday in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains just east of the 215 Freeway.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 News Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Fire photographs -- On Oct. 26, captions with a front-page photograph and a photo inside Section A misidentified a man trying to save his house from the fires in San Bernardino. He is Jim Kilgore, not Jim Killmore.

Cyclones of embers tore through the historic San Bernardino neighborhood of Del Rosa, setting dozens of houses ablaze. Flames leapt from building to building along cul-de-sacs on the edge of the foothills, as palm and pine trees exploded in flames. As residents fled, some homeowners ignored the order, wrapped towels over their faces and attempted to save their homes with garden hoses.

"Today we have bad news and worse news," San Bernardino County Deputy Fire Chief Dan Worl told a group of fire evacuees. "We just don't have any place to contain this fire."

The blaze, 50 miles east of Los Angeles, spread rapidly along two fronts and late Saturday threatened to burn explosively dry forests devastated by drought and bark beetles. By 9:40 p.m., a separate fire in Crestline had prompted mandatory evacuations of Twin Peaks, Blue Jay and Crestline communities and closed Highway 330, the route to Big Bear, to all traffic. Federal officials Saturday closed the San Bernardino National Forest to all visitors.

Local officials called upon Gov. Gray Davis to declare a state of emergency as fire authorities urged thousands of residents to evacuate. Within hours, a makeshift evacuation center at the San Bernardino International Airport was overflowing with fire refugees.

The so-called Old Fire in San Bernardino devoured more than 10,000 acres of forest land and scores of homes in the Del Rosa Estates area and along Quail Canyon. As of late Saturday, fire officials said more than 200 homes and other structures were destroyed, said San Bernardino Fire Chief Larry Pitzer.

"My house is already gone," cried Sonia Sanchez as she stood amid a blizzard of ash and smoke at the corner of Del Rosa Avenue and Marshall Boulevard. "The fire moved so fast that all we got out was my family and our cars."

Fanned by gusts of more than 50 mph, the blaze exploded into a two-headed firestorm that spread east through a neighborhood of half-million-dollar homes in Quail Canyon, and west to the campus of Cal State San Bernardino.

The Rim of the World Highway to Lake Arrowhead was shut down, as was a portion of Interstate 10 near San Bernardino for a time. A Southern California Edison spokesman said the blaze knocked out power to Running Springs, Crestline and Lake Arrowhead, and will be out indefinitely.

The San Bernardino fire also threatened several homes near the base of the Rim of the World Highway and authorities ordered the San Manuel Indian casino evacuated.

As flames headed west, a fog of heavy black smoke blew through Cal State San Bernardino, tripping fire alarms and triggering sprinkler systems throughout the campus. Sparks ignited small brush fires on the grounds and the recreation center caught fire. Officials ordered all dorms and buildings evacuated and canceled sporting events.

By late Saturday evening, bare chimneys stood amid smoking embers in some neighborhoods as police patrolled the streets for looters. At least three people were arrested when they were caught outside evacuated homes, police said.

The San Bernardino fire was first reported about 8:30 a.m. Saturday on Old Waterman Road and Rim of the World Highway. The California Highway Patrol a short time later reported that passengers in a gray van were allegedly seen flicking burning matches out the window as they drove toward Lake Arrowhead.

"We're aware of the van. It's being investigated aggressively," said San Bernardino County Sheriff's Deputy John Hernandez.

The San Bernardino Fire Department used every available city firefighter, along with several federal forest service crews, but they were overwhelmed, said Battalion Chief Jess Campos. Campos made a desperate appeal for help Saturday afternoon. Every fire crew in Southern California was spoken for, however, fighting other blazes throughout the region, he said.

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