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DEADLY WILDFIRE: TRAGEDY IN THE SAN JACINTO MOUNTAINS

Narrow escape after ring of fire encircles RV park

`I called Ohio and said goodbye to my mom and dad,' a visitor says. The blaze came within a few feet of the resort.

October 27, 2006|David Kelly and Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writers

The flames quietly circled the rustic getaway before dawn Thursday, creeping toward nearly 2,000 sleeping vacationers hoping to enjoy a weekend in the mountains.

Before they knew it, Silent Valley RV Resort was surrounded by a wall of fire so thick and dense that stepping a few feet outside the park perimeter meant incineration, witnesses say.

Residents endured a tense standoff with the Esperanza blaze as a small army of firefighters battled to keep the ring of fire at bay.

"At one point we were really in trouble here," said Beth Wells, 45, of Redlands, who came up to stay at the resort for Halloween, Silent Valley's most popular weekend of the year. "I closed my eyes for 10 minutes. Then I called Ohio and said goodbye to my mom and dad."

Silent Valley is a mountain community sitting in a natural bowl that includes permanent homes and an adjacent 845-slot, members-only RV resort with a pool, restaurant and tennis courts for short-term vacationers with coach RVs.

Boxed in by flames shooting over Highway 243 toward Banning, firefighters decided it was best to keep residents in the RV park rather than let them try to escape. They feared the bulky RVs would clog the road, already dangerous from fire, falling rocks and thick smoke.

That meant Silent Valley denizens hunkered down without power, right in the heart of the fire zone.

Their community had a bulwark of firefighters and firetrucks to protect it.

Cecelia Sandoval, 65, of Lakewood said the ordeal started for her when she was awakened at 4:15 a.m. by the smell of smoke. "I couldn't see anything, and then I saw it started coming over the ridge, and it was all around us," she said.

The fire came closer and closer, and finally encircled them. "If you stepped two feet out of the perimeter anywhere around the park, you were in the fire," said Eileen Brown, 60, a Poppet Flats resident who sits on the board of directors of Silent Valley. "But firefighters surrounded this place. I've been up here 20 years, and this was the worst fire I've seen."

As the hours wore on, residents had plenty of time to reflect on their decisions. "I didn't know if we were going to get out or not," said Wells, the Redlands resident.

Despite official assurances that the fire was going around them, Wells said she had second thoughts about staying with her children as she looked into the surrounding mountains and saw billows of smoke and erupting flames. "The fire had me in tears," she said.

Asked how she felt about the four firefighters who died nearby earlier that morning as a result of what authorities say was arson, Wells looked over at a group of firemen taking a break.

"I can't believe someone would do that. Look at these guys. All they do is try to save us and help us," she said.

Late in the afternoon, firefighters gave residents the option of staying or leaving. Most chose to stay, Brown said.

Sandoval said firefighters helped calm jittery residents: "I never felt really frightened. They kept us up to date about what was going on."

By evening, the danger had passed, but the area was left with ghostly reminders of how close the fire had come.

Air tankers and helicopters still crossed the sky as the sun, looking like a big blood-red eye, set over the fire region. On the road leading up to the park, the guardrails kept burning all day, and rocks unmoored from the hillside littered the road, where embers still smoldered.

david.kelly@latimes.com

jill.leovy@latimes.com

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