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Blaze Races Toward Arrowhead

Tens of Thousands Evacuate; Simi Fire Nears Stevenson Ranch

October 29, 2003|Sue Fox, Daryl Kelley and Tony Perry | Times Staff Writers

An unrelenting wildfire jumped a fire line Tuesday in the San Bernardino Mountains and headed toward Lake Arrowhead, devouring homes and disease-racked forests in its path. Downcast fire officials said they appeared to be losing their battle for the alpine resort region.

The blaze, potentially catastrophic, was one of several fires that have burned close to 900 square miles of Southern California in the last week -- an area larger than Orange County -- leaving 16 people dead and destroying at least 2,000 homes, state officials said. Others raged from Ventura County to Mexico, forcing tens of thousands of additional evacuations and nearing more communities, including the Stevenson Ranch subdivision in northern Los Angeles County.

Fire destroyed the hamlet of Cuyamaca in the Cleveland National Forest east of San Diego, authorities there said.

"We are experiencing a history-altering event," said James M. Wright of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "We feel this is no doubt the most devastating natural disaster California's faced, and also no doubt the most costly."

A shift in the weather brought cooling marine breezes to soot-caked fire crews. It helped arrest some fires, but fanned others in new and treacherous directions. The National Weather Service was predicting gusty winds for this afternoon, which could hamper firefighting efforts in some areas.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Chatsworth -- An article in Wednesday's California section about the region's wildfires referred incorrectly to the location of Chatsworth. It is in the northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley, not the northeast.

As exhausted firefighters struggled to gain some measure of control over the fires, the head of the U.S. Forest Service sounded downhearted.

"It isn't getting better yet," Dale N. Bosworth said in an interview with The Times in Sacramento. "It's pretty grim."

Smoke filled the sky throughout much of Southern California, turning it a range of otherworldly colors, from a putrid grayish yellow to salmon pink.

Close to the fires, eyes stung, lungs ached.

Residents of threatened communities, many of whom moved to the fringe of wilderness to escape urban stress, were confronted with life-and-death decisions and wrenching heartache.

In the town of Running Springs, along Rim of the World Highway between Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear, local fire Battalion Chief Ben Wilkins was besieged with telephone calls from anxious residents who had evacuated and wanted status reports on their homes and properties.

Wilkins, who recently bought a three-story log home in Running Springs, was sympathetic but frank. "I fully expect to lose my home today," he told the callers.

"That's the reality of the whole thing," he said. "But I've got insurance, and I'll rebuild. Our main concern is that no one loses their life here."

Besides threatening homes, the fire at Stevenson Ranch endangered the Old Glory oak tree, where an activist spent 71 days nearly a year ago in an effort to save the tree from a road-widening project.

"It's gonna be gone," said Nathan Gonzales, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

John Quigley, the tree-sitting activist, said he was watching the fire on television in his Pacific Palisades home. "Obviously this thing is much bigger than the tree right now," he said. "I'm just here sending out some good thoughts for the people out there."

In Washington, House and Senate negotiators tentatively agreed to provide $500 million in emergency funding to help the Federal Emergency Management Agency respond to the California wildfires, as well as to Hurricane Isabel.

The spending was proposed by Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), who called it a "down payment" on the amount that will be needed to repair and rebuild. He estimated the cost at more than $4 billion -- more than twice the losses incurred in the Oakland Hills fire of 1991, which had hitherto been considered California's most expensive.

State officials estimated that damages from the current fires would exceed $2 billion.

Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger arrives in the nation's capital today to meet with members of Congress. A Schwarzenegger spokesman said the governor-elect planned to meet Thursday with FEMA officials.

President Bush, who on Monday declared four California counties to be a federal disaster area, promised again Tuesday to help the state.

"I express my deep concerns and sympathies for those whose lives have been hurt badly by these fires," the president said. "The federal government is working closely with the state government to provide the resources necessary to help the brave firefighters do their duty."

There were some encouraging trends Tuesday, including the shift from hot, dry, Santa Ana winds to cooler, moister onshore air flows. However, the trend alarmed firefighters around Lake Arrowhead, who had considered the Santa Ana winds their ally in pushing the fire down the south-facing slope of the mountains and away from resort communities.

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