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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES | BIG BEAR

Fighting Flames, Fears

Refugees Strive for Calms as They Await News of Homes

October 28, 2003|Sue Fox and Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writers

The resort community of Big Bear, under brilliant sunshine, with breezes blowing through from nearby canyons, provided a calm haven Monday for evacuees from other communities threatened by the wildfire climbing mountain slopes.

One of those towns was the resort community of Lake Arrowhead, 25 miles to the west. By late Monday, the flames had spared homes in most of the hamlets that speckle the Lake Arrowhead area.

Fire department officials said about 40,000 residents near there had been ordered to evacuate. It was unclear when they would be allowed to return.

Many found solidarity among friends in Big Bear. Cabins and lodges remained almost at capacity as evacuees sat chatting, watching television and worrying about their homes.

Robin Cannata, 48, and her husband, Steve, checked into the Golden Bear Cottages on Sunday afternoon after fleeing their home about 17 miles west of Big Bear. Their daughter, Laura, 22, and her husband, Mark Downey, 31, joined them later in the day.

"I tell you what, we had a fire back in '97, and 13 houses a block away from us burned. So I know how fast fire can go. This time I have a bad feeling about it, I really do," said Robin Cannata. The Cannatas live three doors from their daughter. They had rented for eight years and had finally saved enough money to buy. They were preparing to close escrow next week.

"I'm scared this time, I really am," Robin Cannata said as she rocked softly in an armchair.

The Cannatas counted at least 40 co-workers and acquaintances from their town, including the girl who delivered their newspapers, and contractors that Steve Cannata, a construction foreman, knows. Their immediate neighbors were at the Grey Squirrel Resort across the street.

As Monday wore on, the evacuees sought normalcy. The Cannatas, Downeys and others had a barbecue to celebrate Mark Downey's birthday.

Stores remained open in Big Bear, which has maintained its power supply throughout the emergency, but shopkeepers acknowledged that business was slow.

"All in all, people are staying calm," said Sue Van Sickle, a clerk at the Big Bear station of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

The Golden Bear Cottages were nearly full by Sunday afternoon, said innkeeper Lisa Duran, who cut the $79-a-night room rate by 50%.

"We don't want to gouge people in a time of need," she said. Three of her relatives had to evacuate from nearby fire zones.Many arrived at their temporary quarters with just the essentials.

Fearful that they might run out of money, the Cannatas brought camping gear.

"We can't afford to stay in a motel every night," Steve Cannata said.

Crestline resident Robert Henkel brought the 110-year-old oil lamp that was suspended from his living room's arched ceiling. Hustling to evacuate Saturday, he had decided he was not going without it. In less than three minutes, he had dragged a ladder into the house and detached it.

Groping in the dark, Henkel also stuffed a few clothes, a laptop computer and several expensive power tools into the bed of his pickup, and, with his wife, Peggy, three dogs and a cat, set off for Big Bear.

"They have hot tubs up there," said Peggy Henkel, 46, "and we deserve it!"

By midmorning Sunday, most of the area around Lake Arrowhead was a ghost town.

The Mountains Community Hospital emptied its wards early Sunday, sending 24 patients, including a newborn girl, to three nearby facilities.

Deputies had canvassed neighborhoods, using loudspeakers to order people out.

But some residents complained that they had not even heard the command to evacuate.

Retiree Grace McKean said she was determined not to be defeated by the blaze.

Loading her pickup with her motorcycle, leather boots and an antique Indian figure, she vowed that if the fire burned her out, she would rebuild in the area.

"They can't take my scenery away from me," said McKean, 69.

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