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High Humidity, Rain Help Damp Fires' Spread

Officials expect the San Bernardino County blazes -- which have burned 85,000 acres over nine days -- to be contained by tonight.

July 18, 2006|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

Higher humidity in the fire-ravaged areas of San Bernardino County slowed the spread of two adjoining blazes Monday that have burned more than 85,000 acres in Yucca Valley and parts of the San Bernardino National Forest.

By this evening, fire officials said, they expect to fully contain the once-unwieldy Sawtooth Complex fire, a 61,700-acre blaze sparked by lightning that has killed one person and destroyed 58 homes and mobile homes since July 9.

"The Sawtooth is winding down," said Melody Lardner, a fire information officer with the U.S. Forest Service. Firefighters were reporting spotty bursts of rain above the fire Monday. "The moisture has calmed the fire down," Lardner said.

Firefighters concentrated their efforts Monday on creating fire lines around an 800-acre hot zone known as the "Heart Zone" on the northwestern edge of the Sawtooth fire where it meets the northeastern edge of the neighboring Millard fire.

That portion of the fires threatened residents of about 100 mountain homes near Onyx Summit on the eastern edge of Highway 38, the road to Big Bear. But the fire was at least three miles from that area and about eight miles from the resort communities of Big Bear, fire information officials said. Burns Canyon was the only community still under mandatory evacuation orders.

Firefighters also made progress battling the Millard fire, a 24,210-acre blaze that ignited the same day as the Sawtooth fire among the steep ridges of the San Gorgonio Wilderness Area. The Millard blaze joined up with the Sawtooth fire Friday.

The Millard fire was advancing slowly Monday after racing through stands of dead trees over the weekend, said John Miller, a public information officer with the U.S. Forest Service. Firefighters managed to contain about 49% of the fire, though they continued to struggle in areas where the "mountains jump right out of the ground and go straight up," he said.

"One of the battles we've been having is that you'll have the fire run up to the top of the ridge -- it kind of holds and we'll work on it -- then you'll have a burning tree go down the chute and hit the bottom and ignite the other side," Miller said.

But the fire activity Monday was minimal, he said.

"Today was a pretty good day," Miller said.

Although the sprinkling of rain brought welcome moisture to some portions of the Sawtooth fire, which was 85% contained Monday evening, San Bernardino County officials handed out fliers earlier in the day warning Morongo Basin residents of a new threat -- flash floods.

Officials told residents that lack of vegetation in the burnt areas increased the possibility of floodwaters coursing down the torched mountainsides into their communities.

"It's kind of a double-edged sword," said Glenn Barley, a San Bernardino-based fire information officer with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "Getting some precipitation on the fire would be good from the standpoint of helping to put the fire out."

But he said, "We are also concerned about the flooding potential coming off the burned areas ... and the potential for lightning strikes."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger returned to the region Monday to meet with residents in the fire-swept community of Pioneertown after taking a tour of the fires in a Black Hawk military helicopter.

As officials demobilized some of the units fighting the Sawtooth blaze, the number of fire personnel dropped from 2,900 at the fire's height to 1,858 Monday evening. There have been 17 minor injuries, mostly to firefighters.

Fire information officials said the cost of suppressing the Sawtooth fire had topped $13.8 million, with property damage estimated at more than $11.7 million. The Millard fire has not caused any property damage, but the firefighting tab already is more than $7.2 million.

Much of the expense has stemmed from the heavy use of helicopters and air tankers, which have dropped water and flame retardant into the steep, rocky areas that are hard for firefighters to reach.

A Victorville-based DC-10 jumbo jet that was converted into a wildfire-fighting tanker plane was pressed into service for the first time Sunday afternoon over the Sawtooth fire.

The converted American Airlines passenger plane "lay down 1.3 miles of fire retardant" on two swoops, said Tony Morris, a leader of Wildfire Research Network, a Topanga-based group. Use of the plane, which was retrofitted to hold 12,000 gallons of retardant at a cost of about $15 million, was authorized by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"It slowed the progress of the fire and let ground force come in and put containment lines in the area," said Jesse Estrada, a department spokesman.

Sunday's two runs cost the state $52,000. But "you'd be surprised how inexpensive that is when you really look at the amount of retardant dropped," Estrada said.

The DC-10 was not needed Monday, he said, because of the rain.


Times staff writer Bob Pool contributed to this report.

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