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Infection Claims the Life of Man Severely Burned in Grand Prix Fire

San Bernardino County resident was in a coma for 11 weeks after being caught by a gust of flames and burned over 80% of his body.

January 16, 2004|Allison Hoffman | Times Staff Writer

Mickey McElwain never saw the wall of flame that eventually killed him. He was racing away from the front of the Grand Prix fire as it advanced toward his parents' home in tony San Antonio Heights the night of Oct. 25 when his 1982 Datsun was engulfed.

His mother, Nita, came upon him in her car moments later. He was standing on the shoulder of Mountain Avenue next to the smoldering vehicle, with third-degree burns covering 80% of his body.

"He got in and said, 'I think my car rolled over and burned me, but I was wearing my seat belt,' " Nita McElwain recalled Thursday. "He was in shock."

She barreled down the hill to the closest hospital.

Mickey McElwain, 53, fell into a coma that gripped him until late Tuesday night, when he died of a blood infection at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton.

Eleven weeks ago, the Grand Prix fire raged west through the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains from Fontana to Claremont, eventually claiming 60,000 acres and 136 homes, including Nita and Cal McElwain's. But the fire, the first of the many that seared Southern California last fall, had not claimed a single life until Mickey McElwain's death.

Together, the Southern California wildfires last fall consumed 738,000 acres in six counties, destroyed more than 3,600 homes and structures, and took 26 lives.

Last week, investigators from the arson unit of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department announced that the Grand Prix fire was probably caused by a dropped cigarette or an exhaust spark from a motorcycle or all-terrain vehicle, and found no evidence to suggest that it was set.

Sheriff's officials have not identified any suspects in the Grand Prix fire, but Don Atkinson, sergeant of the bomb/arson squad, said that if investigators find the people responsible for the fire, prosecutors could decide to charge them with McElwain's death.

"An accident is an accident, but in a fire of that magnitude, the D.A. would have to decide what to do," Atkinson said. "It all depends on how it started."

The fire started the afternoon of Oct. 21 near the mouth of the Lytle Creek wash, west of Interstate 15 in Fontana. Over the next few days, it skimmed the upper reaches of new developments in Etiwanda and Rancho Cucamonga. Fire crews finally wrestled the flames back into Deer Creek Canyon, away from residential areas, by the afternoon of Oct. 25. But as the sun set, rising Santa Ana winds boosted embers aloft, pushing flames over five miles of ridgeline from Deer Creek west to Mt. Baldy Road.

Firefighters deployed through the upper reaches of Alta Loma and San Antonio Heights, whose winding streets are lined with highly flammable eucalyptus trees, were rapidly overwhelmed. Sheriff's deputies and civilian volunteers found themselves hastily escorting frightened residents down the mountain.

Cal McElwain, Mickey's 74-year-old father, spent the early part of the evening assisting with the evacuation east of Cucamonga Creek. He returned to his home in San Antonio Heights, north of Upland, around 8:30 p.m. convinced that the fire would not jump that natural firebreak.

"I had just taken a shower, put on some sweats and sat down when my son came in and said, 'Hurry, the fire's coming this way,' " said McElwain, who served as a San Bernardino County supervisor from 1978 to 1986. "We only had 10 minutes to get out."

Mickey McElwain left the house first, his car loaded with family photographs and financial records. A moment after he pulled away, a strong gust of wind uprooted three trees in his parents' driveway, blocking Nita McElwain's car.

"I'm assuming that was the same wind that got Mickey's car," she said.

Nita McElwain described her eldest son, who never married and had no children, as a fun-loving man who enjoyed playing Jimmy Buffett songs on his guitar, hiking near his parents' time-share at Lake Arrowhead and tossing off quotes from Mark Twain, his favorite author.

Mickey McElwain lived not far from where the fire started, in Fontana, where he worked as a custodian at North Tamarind Elementary School. He spent much of his free time working for his union.

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