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In the Desert, Fire Is Just the Latest Trial

Morongo Valley folks have seen floods and rain, so blazes won't faze them. They say their remote refuge is worth the harsh conditions.

June 24, 2005|Lance Pugmire and Susana Enriquez | Times Staff Writers

The hardy desert denizens of Morongo Valley have survived monsoonal rains, flash floods, ice storms and blistering Mojave Desert heat -- and that's just in the last few years.

Now they can add a windblown wildfire that torched 3,022 acres and destroyed six homes and a barn Wednesday and Thursday.

By Thursday evening, 800 firefighters had the Paradise blaze, which smoldered two miles south of Yucca Valley and just west of Joshua Tree National Park, 50% contained and hoped to have it completely under control by 6 p.m. today.

San Bernardino County Fire Division Chief Paul Summers said firefighters caught a break when the wildfire jumped the Twentynine Palms Highway and headed east toward the desert rather than north toward neighborhoods.

"We were very lucky," Summers said. "We could have lost 700 structures easy."

Although investigators now know the fire started at a home in Morongo Valley, the cause is still unclear, he said.

High Desert residents such as Cathy Forcoran, who have taken root alongside the yucca plants, tend to stand their ground.

On Wednesday, Forcoran used a garden hose to battle the flames near her home.

"She blistered her toes fighting that fire," said her neighbor, Gerry Strauss. "Someone told her it wouldn't do her any good," he said, but Forcoran replied that the effort was doing her good, "even if it's only psychologically doing me good."

Forcoran's house survived.

Residents say the refuge the valleys provide is worth the sometimes rough conditions.

"In a smaller city, you're not as stressed as you can be in the big city with all the freeways and traffic and everything else that goes on down there," said Sandy Pratt, a mosaic artist who has lived near Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms for three decades.

The bone-dry Mojave Desert valleys at the foot of Southern California's highest mountains -- which rise from a few hundred feet to more than 11,000 in a span of a few miles -- are hit by fires, floods and snow with some regularity, said Ed Clark, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego.

Flash floods in 2003 washed away cars and blocked highways near the quiet community tucked between the snow-capped San Gorgonio and San Jacinto mountain peaks; high winds tore a roof of one desert home during a thunderstorm the same year.

Storm clouds trapped against the mountains "will cause the rain to pour down there," Clark said, which leads to floods on the barren land.

"It's a combination of conditions and bad luck, I guess," Clark said.

Floodwaters slashed a trench behind the Morongo Fruit Market last winter. Owner Pauline Prager dumped sand and gravel there three times but could not stop the rushing water.

"I think that everything Mother Nature could throw at us has happened to us in the last two years," said Prager, 55.

But she has lived there for 24 years and is staying put. The town's 2,000 residents, who live in a mix of horse properties, mobile homes and single-family dwellings, look out for one another when natural calamities hit.

"For disasters like this, everyone pulls together and takes care of each other," Prager said.

Like the woman who stored the frozen perishables from Prager's store -- where the electricity was off Thursday afternoon -- in her home refrigerator.

Bill Peters, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said firefighters were now working "to cut a containment line on the backside of the fire," a job that must be done with shovels up and down rocky mountain slopes, including through Joshua Tree National Park.

If the wind stays down, there is "very little" possibility that the flames in Big Morongo Canyon will reach nearby Yucca Valley, Peters said.

Another fire near San Jacinto in Riverside County blackened 2,080 acres by Thursday evening and was 20% contained.

Riverside County fire officials expect the fire to be 100% contained by 6 p.m. today. No structures have been damaged, and no one has been evacuated. One firefighter twisted his knee while fighting the blaze and was taken to a hospital.

In Morongo Valley, Lisa Trowbridge's neighbors' homes were gutted by the Paradise blaze, but she managed to get her family and their animals -- including five cats, four dogs, eight chickens, one horse and two turtles -- to safety at a friend's ranch.

But after a sleepless night wondering whether she had lost everything, she's taking the elements in stride.

"I wouldn't live anywhere else," Trowbridge said. "This is horse country, cowboy country. It's quiet. Except for three months in the summer, it has better weather than even Palm Springs."

Jeb Brighouse and his wife had escaped Echo Park several weekends a month at their desert hideaway, until they lost their place in Wednesday's fire.

"Am I going to feel better being hysterical? No," he said.

The Red Cross provided motel rooms for two families who lost their homes. "They're awful stressed," said John Benefield, a Red Cross official. "They're amazed at just how fast it happened. You don't realize how fast fire can move until something like this happens to you."




Wildfires in San Bernardino and Riverside counties have burned more than 25,000 acres since Wednesday -- most in the Mojave National Preserve -- and six homes in Morongo Valley.

1. Hackberry, Wildhorse, Ranch fires: 20,000 acres burned; no containment

2. Paradise fire: 3,022 acres burned; 6 homes destroyed; 50% contained

Soboba fire: 2,080 acres burned; 20% contained

Source: Riverside, San Bernardino county fire departments; Bureau of Land Management

Times staff writers Susannah Rosenblatt and Stephanie Ramos contributed to this report.

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