California firefighting resources near limit

Flames advance on L.A., mountain resorts

815 square miles consumed

October 29, 2003|By Vincent J. Schodolski | Vincent J. Schodolski,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

LOS ANGELES - Exhausted firefighters struggled against rapidly advancing flames across Southern California yesterday, trying to keep the firestorm out of the city of Los Angeles, away from homes and out of mountain resorts where thousands of dead trees offered rich fuel for the blazes.

One week after the wildfires began, firefighters went from door to door in Los Angeles' Chatsworth neighborhood, a middle- and upper-class area in the San Fernando Valley, and ordered reluctant residents to leave their homes because of a threatening blaze in an adjoining valley.

With smoke in the air and fires raging out of control in five California counties, state officials said yesterday that more than 522,000 acres - more than 815 square miles - have been consumed and about 2,000 homes lost.

Seventeen people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced, state officials said yesterday.

Gov. Gray Davis said the fires were the biggest natural disaster ever to strike California, and he estimated the losses would amount to more than $2 billion.

"We have not seen this kind of intensity, or these numbers of individuals affected," said Andrea Tuttle of the California Department of Forestry.

The resort communities east of Los Angeles around Lake Arrowhead and the Big Bear ski area faced a growing danger yesterday as the fire that has been burning in the San Bernardino area moved up the mountainside, jumped a winding two-lane highway and set houses and other structures ablaze.

Seriously complicating the problem was the fact that the mountaintop is littered with tens of thousands of dead trees, killed by an infestation of bark beetles over a couple of years. The brown trees outnumber living ones in many areas, and fire experts said the dead trees would explode into flames when the fire made contact.

Lake Arrowhead is home to cabins and multimillion-dollar mansions nestled in thick forests. Experts said it would be almost impossible to save the community if the fire spread as feared.

Crews in the San Bernardino National Forest, 60 miles from downtown Los Angeles, were unable to save 20 structures on Strawberry Peak. An estimated $3 billion worth of homes were at risk from Crestline through Lake Arrowhead to Big Bear, officials said.

Lake Arrowhead residents were ordered to leave days ago. Officials ordered Big Bear residents out yesterday. Residents said the narrow roads in and out of the area were jammed and it was taking up to three hours to leave. An estimated 40,000 people live in the area.

"Just about everything is burning," said William Bagnell, fire chief of the Crest Forest Fire Protection District.

"If the fire gets into the Lake Arrowhead area, I don't think there is anything that can stop it from burning down the entire community," said Thomas Bonnicksen, a professor of forest science at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

Bonnicksen, who has been working with county officials on the bark beetle problem, said all the elements for a disaster were present, including the dry conditions and dead trees: "I can't imagine a worse situation."

In some areas, the situation changed almost every hour. After the fire was held back from Chatsworth early in the day, many people thought the threat had passed. But within hours the winds whipped up again and the danger returned.

"Gosh, I thought we were out of the woods," said Sam Smith, a Chatsworth resident standing alongside firefighters watching as fires from adjacent Simi Valley lapped the ridges of the Santa Susana Mountains.

A front of that fire threatened Stevenson Ranch, a community northwest of Los Angeles near the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park.

A week into the fires, the men and women fighting them were reaching the breaking point.

"They're so fatigued that despite the fact the fire perimeter might become much larger, we're not willing to let the firefighters continue any further," said Rich Hawkins, a Forest Service fire chief.

He said the state needed twice as many firefighters to battle the fires east and northeast of San Diego. Ten thousand firefighters were on fire fronts throughout the state, and Davis said he had spoken with the governors of Nevada and New Mexico, who agreed to send firefighting resources to California.

Davis also said he had been in touch with White House officials, who had renewed pledges to help California. The governor said he would also order state tax officials not to send tax bills to those who suffered damage to their homes from the fires.

Starting Oct. 21, there have been 10 wildfires rampaging through Southern California, demolishing neighborhoods, gutting businesses and blackening more than a half-million acres of land from the Mexican border to Simi Valley just north of Los Angeles.

Arson is suspected in at least two fires, but officials said investigations into the cause of the other fires were still under way.

Forestry Department division chief Ken Hale said crews were short of fuel and food, and he had been on the fire line for 55 hours. He said firefighters even drove to nearby towns to gas up their vehicles and buy fast food.

Hale, 54, heading for some sleep, said, "As soon as I found out people had died, it changes the entire outlook on the fire. It goes from being an adversary, a worthy adversary, to something that's very deadly, a monster."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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