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Mountain Residents Now Fear Desert Fires

July 14, 2006|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

LAKE WILLIAMS — As a creeping haze of gray smoke rolled up the San Bernardino Mountains on Thursday afternoon, the anxiety level among residents in Big Bear and other forest communities rose just as fast.

"It's a small town.... We have some friends at the Fire Department and they're telling us scary things -- if they're lucky, they think they can steer it, but they don't think they can squash it right now," said Russ Campbell, who was helping his son pack up his Lake Williams home off Highway 38.

Residents in the Lake Williams area, just east of Big Bear Lake, said San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies had gone door to door warning them that out-of-control wildfires, just five to six miles to the east and south, could merge and threaten their community of 70 to 100 homes.

Walt Chacon, deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, tried to reassure residents at a packed meeting in the city of Big Bear Lake on Thursday night.

The possible merging of the fires "does not pose a threat for this community at this time," Chacon told the crowd of nearly 1,000, adding that the wildfire closest to the mountain -- by far the biggest -- had slowed.

While no evacuation orders were issued Thursday, officials were "preparing for the worst," said Capt. Lee Watkins of the Sheriff's Department's Big Bear station.

So were uneasy residents in the mountain communities southeast of Big Bear Lake, who packed up photographs, tax papers and pets.

"We're pretty stressed," said Jertora Burdette, 33, of Lake Williams, who was loading up her family's camper and getting ready to head down the mountain. "We're just smelling the smoke and it's getting hazy -- the wind has picked up. This morning you couldn't smell it at all. It was all blue sky."

Mike Campbell said the orange helicopters constantly zigzagging overheard to drop fire retardant made him spring into action.

"Last night it was far off; this morning it was too close," said Campbell, who lives in the Lake Williams neighborhood and had just gathered family documents, snapshots and his wife's shoe collection before sending their 10-year-old daughter to his father's house in Big Bear City.

"The helicopters that fly over your place and rattle the plates on the wall are scary," Campbell said. "The fact that it's about three or four miles away from the house is startling."

Nearby, Penny Schooley, 48, said she and her husband photographed all their belongings in their house for insurance claims, and pulled out the ladders and hoses for firefighters.

She was trying to think positively.

"I mean, we have insurance," she said. "I could use some new clothes."

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