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1,000 Flee Raging Fire

Blaze sweeps 1,400 acres near Lake Arrowhead, raising fears that vast stands of trees killed by drought and disease will go up in flames.

September 06, 2003|Louis Sahagun and Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

Fire burned more than 1,400 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest, threatened more than 1,500 buildings and forced the evacuation of about 1,000 residents near Lake Arrowhead on Friday, authorities said.

The fire, which was 2% contained late Friday, worried residents and firefighters because it burned about 12 miles from a forest of dead and diseased trees covering thousands of acres.

The blaze began at 3:05 p.m. just off California 330, about 12 miles from Lake Arrowhead. The highway remained closed in both directions. California 18 also was closed.

"Our biggest fear is that the fire would erupt into a crown fire that would sweep through the community," said San Bernardino County Sheriff's Capt. John Hernandez. This morning, he said, "We'll be mobilizing all of our teams to evacuate as many as 2,000 more people from the Running Springs area if necessary."

Residents in Smiley Park, Knob Hill and Enchanted Forest were ordered to evacuate, and assembled at Rim of the World High School in Rim Forest. On Friday night, about 800 dazed evacuees filled the parking lot with their pets.

A collection of greyhounds, border collies, Pekingese and Chihuahuas gave the shelter the appearance of a hastily convened dog show.

Collette Simon, 63, of Smiley Park said sheriff's deputies drove through her neighborhood about 5 p.m. urging residents to leave.

"I grabbed my two cockatiels and five of my cats," Simon said. After searching frantically for her two shyest felines, Simon had to leave without them when a deputy outside her door yelled: "Out now!"

With smoke filling the air and ashes falling like rain, Simon left. "All I could do was leave a window open," Simon said, choking back tears. "I hope [the cats] can find their way out if they have to."

Another evacuee, Cheryl Herritt, 51, of Running Springs, sat on the fender of an SUV with her three grandchildren, her daughter, her husband and a panting Siberian husky.

Her family had begun scrambling at 5:30 p.m., when authorities in helicopters shouted at them through bullhorns to evacuate.

"It was very scary," she said. "My car was covered with ashes and the sun was blood red behind the smoke."

Like many others, the Herritts had sought refuge at the high school during a similar fire that got out of control in 1997.

Authorities say that if a fire the size of that blaze were to occur today, the results would be catastrophic for the San Bernardino National Forest.

San Bernardino County fire officials estimate that communities such as Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake are surrounded by nearly 99,000 acres of dead and dying trees -- ready fuel for a forest fire.

The trees, weakened by a four-year drought, are under attack by the bark beetle.

Authorities say the drought and beetles have transformed the trees into matchsticks, and an uncontrolled fire could endanger the lives of thousands of mountain residents. Crews with chain saws have cut down thousands of dead trees and taken them to incinerators. Crews working for state and county agencies, and some contracted by private landowners, have been removing about 460 tons of timber per day.

Although the fire had slowed to a halt Friday night as temperatures fell, authorities worried that today's heat could invigorate it and move it closer to the dead forest. This morning, Hernandez said, "Helicopters and tankers will be hitting it hard to keep it from flaring up."

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