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Struggling for Calm While Fires Blaze

A Marine Wins Battle With Fire; Others Lose

October 27, 2003|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Ever since he returned from Vietnam, Bud Grover, Vietnam veteran and Crestline resident of 17 years, has worn his Silver Star for bravery in battle on a gold chain around his neck.

On Sunday afternoon he held his ground again as fire rushed toward his cabin in this isolated mountain community high in the San Bernardino National Forest.

About 2 p.m., the fire roared up the canyon below Grover's flagstone and wood-frame cabin, sending a wall of flames 30 feet high just yards away.

He grabbed a hose and began dousing the cedar, pine and white birch trees surrounding his home as the flames advanced. For one hour he fought, accompanied by a fire crew that arrived on the scene. By 3:30, the blaze was gone, and the crew headed off to the next battle.

Grover relaxed with an old corncob pipe in a chair under an American flag. He called his wife, who'd gone down to Phelan, a high desert community 50 miles distant, on Saturday.

"Hello honey," he told her. "I didn't leave. But then you figured I wouldn't. The fire department and I made a stand in front of the house, and now it's OK. Take care of yourself. Me and the dogs are going to spend the night here. I love you."

Grover was one of the few who ignored mandatory evacuation orders. "I'm a Marine, and I didn't give up in Vietnam and I'm not giving up now," he said.

By then, Crest Forest Fire District Division Marshal Dick Parmelee was looking back at a hellish day. Santa Ana winds, which sent the fire skittering east and west against the face of the mountain range, were dying down. Now, he waited for more rational fire behavior: hot spots on the front that would seek out the near-vertical canyons that chimney up toward California 18.

"At 6 p.m. I feel it's looking better because of the progress we made today," he said. "The crews fought aggressively and for every home we lost, we saved a hundred."

For anxious mountain residents along Rim of the World Highway, which connects Crestline and other threatened mountain communities, this had been an Armageddon foretold. Drought and bark beetles had devastated the timber, easy prey for the wind-driven flames that came Sunday.

The residents were warned several months ago to clear brush away from their homes, and many did. In the final hours, though, many procrastinated when faced with another, more difficult decision.

Paul Cozzini, a 43-year-old knife sharpener who lives in Cedar Glen, studied the flames from his perch on a guardrail and drew an imaginary line in the timber.

"When it reaches that point," he said, "Then I'll know. And that would give me enough time to lock up my house and gather my wife and elderly neighbor, four cats, three dogs, and hit the road."

As he spoke, however, fire burst out on the dry, heated ridgeline behind him.

At a lookout in Smiley Park, residents with cellphones and babies swathed in blankets watched as well. "It looks like impending doom," said Andy Kalley, 65. "Everybody's scared."

"It's hard to stand here and watch all this, and having to decide whether to stay or go," said Sheila Arqueta, 38, whose family has lived in the area since the 1940s. "For right now, I'm gonna stay put till we're ordered to leave."

By midafternoon, the eastern edge of the rustic community of Crestline was ablaze, 30 of its homes destroyed.

"This is our worst nightmare," said Tricia Abbas, spokeswoman for the San Bernardino National Forest, as the houses burned just a few hundred yards west of her. "This is everything we didn't want here: Santa Ana winds, dead forest, high temperatures."

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