- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2003

LAKE ARROWHEAD, Calif. — Firefighters struggled desperately yesterday to save emptied-out resort towns in Southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains as 200-foot walls of flame engulfed dead and dried-out trees.

In San Diego County, the state’s largest fire claimed another victim when a firefighting crew was overcome by flames. Firefighter Steven Rucker, 38, was killed while trying to save a home near Wynola. Three others were injured.

“It just swept right over them. They probably didn’t have time to get out of the way,” San Diego County Sheriff’s Sgt. Conrad Grayson said of the first firefighter death since the blazes began last week.

The death toll later reached 20 after authorities said two persons were found dead yesterday on an Indian reservation as a result of the same fire.

The fires, which began last week, burned in a broken arc across Southern California, from Ventura County east to Los Angeles County and the San Bernardino Mountains and south to eastern San Diego County.

“There’s fire on so many fronts, it’s not even manageable at this point,” said Chris Cade, a fire-prevention technician with the U.S. Forest Service, as he watched a pillar of smoke he estimated at 9,000 feet rise into a hazy sky thick with ash.

“I am at a loss what you can do about it,” he said.

About 100,000 acres were ablaze in San Bernardino County, with the popular mountain resort areas of Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead, surrounded by fire on three sides, especially menaced.

About $7.2 billion in residential property and almost $1 billion in commercial properties were threatened, officials said.

“It looks like the moon. There is nothing there. What used to be trees and houses is gone … total devastation,” one firefighter told TV station KNBC.

Andrea Tuttle, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, warned of worse to come.

“There, we have 400,000 acres of standing dead trees due to four years of drought and intensive episodic beetle kill,” she told Agence France-Presse at a teleconference.

“We are trying to keep the fire out of that area but if it does go up, it will be of epic proportions. We will never have seen a conflagration of that intensity in that area,” she warned.

If that fire spreads, San Bernardino County Fire Division Chief Mike Conrad said that “it would be suicide to put anyone in there.”

More than 80,000 San Bernardino County residents have been evacuated, but others defied the warnings of firefighters and decided to stay to protect their homes.

“I’m afraid, but I’ve got a lot of faith,” said Chrisann Maurer, as she watered down her yard and home amid smoke-filled winds. “I just think there is enough people praying that we might be safe.”

Mark Peterson, a firefighter with the Big Bear Lake Fire Department, said the fire was moving toward Big Bear rapidly and called those who refused to leave “crazy.”

Mr. Rucker died while battling the Cedar Fire in San Diego County — the largest and deadliest blaze in California. It has burned more than 230,000 acres and nearly 1,100 homes.

One of the firefighters was believed to have suffered critical injuries; the other two were said to have minor injuries.

“It’s stuff you don’t want to hear,” said Jim Venneau, a 31-year-old firefighter who was stationed in downtown Julian. “We know our job is dangerous. We know the chances we take when we do these kinds of things. It bothers you. You want to know exactly what happened because you don’t want it to happen to you.”

San Diego County fire officials feared a 233,000-acre fire and the 50,000-acre blaze would merge into a huge, single blaze that would make it nearly impossible to keep it from reaching Julian.

“Everything’s kind of happening all at once. These fires are trying really hard to tie in with each other,” said Bill Bourbeau, a forest safety officer. “It’s tremendous.”

Statewide, more than 620,000 acres have been burned and 2,100 homes destroyed. More than 12,000 firefighters and support crews were fighting what Gov. Gray Davis said may be the worst and costliest disaster California has ever faced.

At the San Bernardino Mountains, the hot, dry Santa Ana winds from the desert that had been whipping the fires into raging infernos eased, only to give way to stiff breezes off the ocean that pushed the flames up the canyon walls around evacuated resort towns like Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear.

The cool, moist ocean breezes confounded firefighters, keeping aircraft grounded in the area. Winds gusting to 60 mph pushed flames up from the mountain slopes into the dense forest. The breezes were moving at a rate of quarter mile per minute.

California Forestry Department incident commander John Hawkins told exhausted firefighters not to give up.

“We hear losses,” he said. “But the bottom line is we don’t hear how many were saved, how many of you put your name, your body, your heart on the line to save the houses.”

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