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Weather helping crews keep Sheep fire in check

Wrightwood is under mandatory evacuation orders as the blaze bears down on the east edge of town. Firefighters are hopeful that gentler winds and forecast rain could help stamp out the blaze.

October 05, 2009|Louis Sahagun and Jack Leonard

WRIGHTWOOD AND LOS ANGELES — Firefighters battling to save the San Gabriel Mountains town of Wrightwood expressed guarded optimism Sunday that they had halted a fierce, wind-driven blaze, providing relief to a community in the heart of fire country that was forced to evacuate for the first time in memory.

Flames propelled by gusts of up to 60 mph marched to within a quarter-mile of homes in the town that straddles Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. But a lull in winds late in the day allowed firefighters to make an all-out assault on the blaze, cutting wide swaths of firebreaks and lighting backfires.

Improved conditions also gave firefighters the chance to hit the flames with precise water drops from helicopters just a few hundred feet above hot spots. Air tankers bombarded the blaze with retardant.

"Overall, we are starting to get a handle on this fire, although the battle is not over," San Bernardino County Fire Department spokesman Jay Hausman said as he surveyed smoldering canyon lands east of the town.

By Sunday evening, U.S. Forest Service officials reported that the fire had scorched 7,500 acres and was 20% contained. The National Weather Service predicted a drop in gusty conditions overnight and into today and a slight chance of drizzle, offering possible relief for firefighters.

A resort town of roughly 3,400 residents, Wrightwood sits at the bottom of the heavily wooded Swarthout Valley and has long flirted with fire danger.

Nevertheless, Sunday morning's mandatory evacuations took some by surprise as the Sheep fire menaced more than 1,000 homes in the town and surrounding areas.

"I've lived here 47 years. This is the first mandatory evacuation we've ever had," Hazel Kordyak, 72, said after filling her tank at the only gas station in town.

She said she was not sure where she would go. "It's scary. It's just me, my toy poodle and cat. I guess we'll just head down mountain and make a few calls."

Law enforcement authorities later said they were on alert after reports of several break-ins at homes in the largely deserted town.

The call for mandatory evacuations came at 10:20 a.m. for all of Wrightwood as flames edged closer to homes on the eastern edge of the community near Lone Pine Canyon Road.

Some residents immediately heeded the order, packed their bags and headed down the mountain. A few bought disposable cameras to photograph their belongings for insurance purposes. The local hardware store sold socks and hats to firefighters and tire-repair kits to customers as they prepared to leave, with heavy trailers in tow.

Others gathered at a bulletin board in the hardware store's parking lot and shared information while keeping a wary eye on U.S. flags hanging outside restaurants and shops, trying to gauge the wind's direction and strength. Some grumbled that the nearest evacuation shelter was in Rialto, about 24 miles southeast but a longer journey given fire detours and the area's mountain roads.

Another shelter was set up later at the Victorville fairgrounds, about the same distance northeast.

Helicopters doused homes with water, and engine crews covered some structures with fire retardant to help protect them if the flames continued their advance. Bulldozers climbed steep mountain slopes to carve out new firebreaks.

Among the steady flow of residents leaving the town were Brian Tinsley, 46, and Connie Audette, 48, who arrived in Wrightwood on Sunday morning after a 20-hour drive from Mount Vernon, Wash.

Tinsley said he had planned to spend the weekend cleaning up and painting a family cabin in Wrightwood. Instead, he wound up hastily gathering family photos and documents before joining the evacuation. And he came up with a new strategy for the long drive home to Washington.

"I figure we'll take our time and hit our favorite spots along the coast," Tinsley said. "Maybe do some fishing."

A block away on California 2, Betsy West, 34, was wrapping up the last lunch order of the day before locking up her Grizzly Cafe and preparing to leave.

"If not for this particular order, we'd be out of here by now," she said. "The Wrightwood Fire Department asked us to cook up a big batch of hamburgers and chocolate-chip cookies."

Much of the concern Sunday morning was focused on Lone Pine Canyon Road on the eastern edge of town, where dozens of homes were threatened.

"The fire is headed in this direction," said San Bernardino County Fire spokesman Maurice Moore. "We're not saying it will reach Wrightwood homes. We do plan on stopping it."

By midday, the news was even more hopeful. Many residents noted that the black smoke that had filled the skies an hour earlier had turned a more benign light gray and that the howling winds of the day before had diminished to a gentle breeze.

The fire destroyed three homes shortly after it began about 2 p.m. Saturday in the Lytle Creek area east of Mt. Baldy and west of the Cajon Pass.

Fire officials said Sunday that they believed additional structures had been damaged but did not yet have details. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Also Sunday, firefighters in Ventura County battled a brush fire that started in an open area between Thousand Oaks and Lake Sherwood, officials said. That blaze, about 56 acres, was reported fully contained by late Sunday.

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

jack.leonard@latimes.com

Times staff writers Catherine Saillant, Ari B. Bloomekatz and Nicole Santa Cruz contributed to this report.

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