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Plan Passes Test by Fire in Mountain Town

Firefighters keep flames in the San Bernardino range away from Running Springs.

September 07, 2003|Steve Hymon, Daren Briscoe and Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writers

RUNNING SPRINGS — It had all the elements of the nightmare scenario feared this fall by fire officials: a small mountain town in the midst of a forest packed with dead trees, a blaze burning a mile away and a potential arsonist on the loose.

In the first test of careful emergency plans, firefighters gained the upper hand Saturday on the 1,352-acre Bridge Fire and stopped it from jumping Highway 330 and racing north to the town's edge. By nightfall it was 15% contained and nearly 1,000 evacuees were awaiting return-home orders that might come today.

About 950 firefighters, fire-fighting planes and five helicopters worked the blaze, taking advantage of low winds, despite temperatures in the 90s. Nine firefighters suffered minor injuries.

Allison Stewart, district ranger with the San Bernardino National Forest, said Saturday evening that the cause of the fire was under investigation, but that it had started just a few feet from Highway 330. Lightning did not ignite the blaze, she said.

A number of suspicious fires have occurred in the national forest over the summer, she said, including small blazes that were quickly put out on Wednesday and Thursday. Officials are worried that an arsonist might be trying to take advantage of the extreme fire danger in the area.

"There have been a number of suspicious fires across Southern California this summer," Stewart said. "We're concerned that the threat of natural fire is high enough, and we don't need someone setting fires as a recreational activity because they like seeing an airplane dropping retardant."

Fire officials said Saturday that, because the San Bernardino Mountains are facing disaster, they have been making plans with residents since last winter. Residents have been urged to e-mail and phone one another during wildfires and be prepared to evacuate quickly.

"I am crossing my fingers and praying this is the biggest dress rehearsal we ever have," Stewart told several hundred area residents on a sun-baked baseball field Saturday morning.

The town hall-type meeting was one of two such sessions. The other was held at Rim of the World High School, where the audience packed the gymnasium. Officials told residents they wouldn't hesitate to evacuate the entire town of Running Springs if the fire made any further runs. About 1,000 residents had been ordered to leave their homes on Friday night.

That left the remaining residents of the town in limbo. Everyone south of Highway 18 had been evacuated, while 3,000 of those living north of the road -- which bisects the town -- waited to see if the wind would stiffen and blow the flames toward their homes. But by nightfall, that hadn't happened. In the last two years, bark beetles have killed hundreds of thousands of pines in the San Bernardino Mountains, leaving the forest dotted and, in some areas, blanketed with desiccated brown trees that stand in contrast to the green pines. The beetles have created what Running Springs Fire Chief Bill Smith calls "an unprecedented threat."

Because of that, officials have sought the best way to get residents out of harm's way quickly. A yellow flag system has been adopted, signaling that a fire is burning. Many residents have also set up phone banks and start dialing as soon as they hear of a fire.

There are relatively few ways down the mountains.

To ease the effect of the evacuation, the luxurious Lake Arrowhead Resort offered its $200-a-night rooms to evacuees for $19 a night. The Lake Arrowhead Rotary Club donated 1,000 hot dogs and dozens of cases of drinks from its fire-canceled Art and Wine Festival to evacuees.

In the evacuated communities of Smiley Park, Oak Knob, Running Springs, Enchanted Forest and Fredalba, fire crews from agencies around the state positioned their equipment in the driveways of homes, at roadside turnouts and at any location that allowed them to keep an eye on the smoldering hillsides below. Meanwhile, hundreds of deputies waited in Running Springs to sweep through neighborhoods in case they needed to call a general evacuation.

Although it appeared the town had escaped this fire, some noted that the danger would continue into fall, when the Santa Ana winds begin blowing, and next year. Still to be decided is how many beetle-killed trees should be removed, how to remove them and how to pay for it.

Running Springs resident Woody Andrews, who has attended three of the fire council meetings, said the Bridge Fire should accelerate the handling of the infested trees.

"When it comes to giving us information about when the trees are coming down, all they say is the money is coming. But we're not seeing it," Andrews said.

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