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Southland fires send thousands fleeing

Big Bear Lake blaze chars more than 16,000 acres; another burns in San Diego County.

September 16, 2007|Ari B. Bloomekatz | Times Staff Writer

Wildfires that burned into the night Saturday forced several thousand people from their homes in San Bernardino and San Diego counties as winds pushed flames along the edges of Big Bear Lake and the historic town of Julian.

The Big Bear fire, the larger of the two, burned more than 16,000 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in San Bernardino County, saying "there is imminent danger to populated areas, including 6,000 homes and 150 businesses."

At least 500 people were told to evacuate in Fawnskin, near Butler Peak on the north shore of the lake, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman John Miller. And a mandatory evacuation order was also issued for Green Valley Lake, an area with a population of over 500 that touts itself as the "hidden gem" of the San Bernardino Mountains.

The fire, which started Friday about 1:30 p.m. in an area west of Fawnskin, rode 20-mph winds for much of Saturday, scorching brush and timber in mostly steep terrain.

"When you have wind on brush, it's a real flashy fuel that allows the fire to spread real quickly," Miller said. "Right now, this fire is nationally the No. 1 priority. That means if we request a resource we get it."

More than 600 firefighters attacked the blaze, aided by four helicopters and seven planes, including a DC-10 aircraft that has been dropping fire retardant.

"Typically, when you have a wind-driven event, you can't get ahead of the fire," Miller said in a telephone interview as the DC-10 flew over his head.

Two members of an inmate fire crew were hurt when a tree fell on them, officials said.

In addition to the mandatory evacuations, authorities also recommended evacuations in Lucerne Valley from Crystal Creek Road on the east to High Road on the west and north to the Pitzer Buttes area; from downtown Running Springs east through Arrowbear; and at the Camp Whittle, Big Pine Flat, Ironwood, Hanna Flat, Butler Peak Lookout and Yellow Post campgrounds.

California 18 has been closed from Snow Valley to Big Bear Dam. Some nearby campgrounds and trailheads were also shut as rangers braved the smoky terrain Friday and Saturday morning to warn campers of the danger.

The cause of the fire had not been determined.

Jayme Nordine, owner of the Bear Belly Deli in the 42000 block of Moonridge Road, said area residents were worried about damage from the fire only if they lived near the north shore of Big Bear Lake.

"Big Bear Lake is OK and we're OK because the winds are moving northeast," Nordine said. "We're hoping that the wind doesn't change."

Another wildfire was spreading in San Diego County north and east of Julian, a historic former mining camp and tourist destination about 40 miles northeast of downtown San Diego.

The blaze was ignited about midday and grew quickly, burning about 500 acres by 4:15 p.m., said California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention spokesman Matt Streck.

Mandatory evacuations for about 1,000 households were ordered in the communities of Whispering Pines and Wynola, just outside Julian.

Many of the evacuees were allowed to return to their homes late Saturday, said San Diego sheriff's spokeswoman Jan Caldwell.

"The sky is all orange," said Maryann Sandkuhl, proprietor of Tucker Peak Lodge in Julian.

The lodge remained opened late Saturday because it is in the hills above town, but Sandkuhl did have to evacuate her gift shop on Main Street.

"There's not as much smoke anymore," she said. "It's blowing away from town."

Streck said air crews were dropping water and foam on the area while bulldozers cut lines around the blaze.

Officials said they were not yet sure what caused the fire.



Times staff writer Paul Pringle contributed to this report.

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