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Weather Cools Wildfires' Fury

Moisture from the Pacific aids effort to contain the blazes, but many remain out of control. Julian and most of Lake Arrowhead appear safe, for now.

October 31, 2003|Joel Rubin, Janet Wilson and Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writers

A cloud bank carried welcome Pacific moisture to Southern California's mountains Thursday, bringing badly needed relief to firefighters battling twin foes of fire and fatigue.

Six fires, by some measures the most devastating in California history, continued to burn out of control in Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. But the most dangerous of them appeared to be moving away from any towns, and there was a sense on the front lines that the worst may have passed.

"This weather is so bizarre," said Rancho Santa Fe Fire Department Capt. Gary Snavely, who was deployed to save the San Diego mountain town of Julian. "This town is threatened and on the brink of burning yesterday. And now it's raining."

Julian, a historic gold mining town, appeared to have been spared, as was most of Lake Arrowhead. Fires were beaten back from communities in Ventura and northern Los Angeles counties.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 01, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Northridge earthquake -- An article in Friday's Section A about the Southern California wildfires gave the wrong date for the Northridge earthquake. It occurred in 1994, not 1993.

Still, there were new losses Thursday, including most of the community of Harrison Park in San Diego County. And any relief came tinged with an awareness that nature is unpredictable and the fires could yet be re-stoked by a change in winds.

"I'm still very concerned," Deputy Incident Cmdr. Donald Feser of the U.S. Forest Service said as he helped oversee the battle against the Old fire. That blaze had turned away from Arrowhead but still threatened the San Bernardino Mountain resort of Big Bear. "This fire still has a tremendous amount of potential."

Six days after the fires turned catastrophic, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said this had become the worst wildfire season in the state since record-keeping began in the early 20th century.

As of Wednesday, 959,955 acres had burned statewide, two-thirds in the past week in Southern California. The previous record was in 1987, when 873,000 acres burned.

"We are nowhere near out of the fire season yet," noted department spokeswoman Karen Terrill, "so it's very likely we'll pass the million-acre mark."

This week's fires have been blamed for 20 deaths, including one firefighter, and the loss of at least 2,612 homes. They have scorched an estimated 745,000 acres, an area larger than Rhode Island. Losses have been estimated at more than $2 billion.

"This will be the most expensive natural disaster the state has ever incurred," Gov. Gray Davis said Thursday after an aerial tour of the devastation. "It will be the most expensive, the most severe and the longest in duration."

Despite Davis' words, it seemed unlikely that the fires could approach the $20-billion cost of the 1993 Northridge earthquake, or the devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Twenty-five people died and about 3,000 homes were destroyed in a much smaller area in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire.

On Thursday afternoon, Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger took an hourlong helicopter tour of burned sections of the San Bernardino National Forest. Afterward, sporting a yellow CDF jacket, Schwarzenegger said he was impressed with the "incredible coordination of how this was planned. They knew this was going to happen if the forest was not cleaned up. If not for that ... many more families would not have their homes."

Schwarzenegger said he and Davis will meet today to discuss the devastation, and might fly over damaged areas together.

Schwarzenegger earned a roar of applause from the roughly 1,000 assembled fire personnel when he praised their efforts, particularly in evacuating thousands of people from isolated mountain areas.

"I play heroes in the movies," he said. "These firefighters are the true heroes."

For the thousands of firefighters who have been deployed against the threat, many of them around the clock, the past week has been filled with danger, frustration, awe-inspiring spectacle, heartache and, ultimately, utter exhaustion. By Thursday, the ordeal was taking its toll.

Allan Lee, 40, a Rancho Cucamonga firefighter, came down from the mountains Thursday morning after working on the Old fire in San Bernardino County since Saturday and watching hundreds of homes burn. Hungry and homesick, a cell phone call to his wife and two children brought his emotions welling to the surface.

"I'm really tired," he said, turning away and fighting back tears after hanging up the phone. "I just miss home."

San Diego

The town of Julian, site of one of the most dramatic stands by firefighters, was deserted Thursday except for a dozen firetrucks parked on the main street. In front of the town hall, an American flag flew at half-staff in honor of the firefighter who died Wednesday defending the town. Two others injured in that battle were released from the hospital Thursday but a third remained in critical condition.

The Cedar fire reached within 2 1/2 miles of downtown Wednesday, and spot fires licked within 300 yards. By Thursday, though, the fire was obscured by a haze of fog, mist and shifting smoke.

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