LOS ANGELES - Firefighters battled desperately yesterday to stop fires from destroying two Southern California vacation spots, Lake Arrowhead and Julian, a historic mountain town east of San Diego.
One firefighter died, bringing the death toll to 20 after five days of the largest fires in modern California history.
While there was progress in taming some of the 10 fires that have engulfed a broad arc of the region from Ventura County into Mexico, the blazes at Arrowhead and in the mountains east of San Diego bedeviled an exhausted army of firefighters.
As of last night, firefighters had managed to keep the infernos from overtaking Julian, an old gold-mining town about 35 miles from San Diego, and much of Lake Arrowhead, the century-old resort on a manmade lake in the San Bernardino Mountains.
Still, about 300 houses were destroyed on the east side of Arrowhead, and strong winds created dangerous conditions last night that forced the evacuation of many firefighters.
Erratic wind gusts, some as high as 70 mph, sent flames in unexpected directions, not only frustrating efforts to douse them but sometimes engulfing and endangering fire crews.
The National Weather Service forecast continued gusty winds continuing today but said the region was likely to see higher humidity and might have some rain by the end of the week.
The fight to save Julian took its toll when four firefighters were overrun by flames in their truck. One died and the other three were injured, one critically, authorities said.
The dead man was identified as Steve Rucker, a firefighter and paramedic from the Marin County town of Novato. The most severely injured firefighter was identified as Novato fire Capt. Doug MacDonald. He was expected to recover.
"This fire has been nothing short of apocalyptic," said Janet Marshall, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention.
It was not clear how many more homes were lost yesterday. The toll stood at more than 2,400, with estimated losses exceeding $2 billion.
The largest of the blazes, the 233,000-acre Cedar Fire threatening Julian, is now the largest on record in the state, surpassing the 1932 Matilija Fire, which burned 220,000 acres of the Los Padres National Forest in Ventura County but did not destroy any homes or cause any deaths.
Overall, the fires have destroyed more than 634,000 acres, more than twice the size of the city of Los Angeles.
Besides the firefighter killed Tuesday, authorities in San Diego County found the body of a person apparently killed by fire in Alpine, a rural community ravaged earlier in the week, and two other people were found dead in the vicinity of the Barona Ranch Indian Reservation south of Julian.
To the north, firefighters in Ventura and Los Angeles counties battled fires that ranged over brushland from near the small town of Fillmore to the Stevenson Ranch subdivision near Santa Clarita.
Smoke forced the closure, for part of the day, of Interstate 5, the state's main north-south thoroughfare, near Valencia.
Firefighters in some areas benefited from a change in weather patterns that allowed cooler, moist marine air into the region. A low pressure system moving into the region is expected to bring winds out of the south and west, which could push smoke away from urban Los Angeles and San Diego but propel fires farther into the mountain communities around Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead, weather officials said.
On a tarmac at San Bernardino International Airport, Gov. Gray Davis urged swift and severe punishment of the two arsonists believed to have set the Old Fire in the San Bernardino Mountains, pointing out that it has caused the deaths of at least four people.
"I think we should throw the book at them. They not only destroyed property, they destroyed dreams," Davis said before getting into a National Guard helicopter to tour the Lake Arrowhead area. "These people will be held accountable and brought to justice."
Arson is suspected in four of the fires raging through the region, although no arrests have been made. A hunter has been cited for accidentally igniting the Cedar Fire near San Diego, but he has not been accused of arson.
Davis also declared a state of emergency in Riverside County. He had previously declared emergencies in San Bernardino, Ventura, San Diego and Los Angeles counties.
The governor, soon to relinquish his office to Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, was reluctant to respond to criticism that he did not activate firefighting resources, especially air tankers, quickly enough in San Diego County and elsewhere.
However, he said, "Let me be clear, I have marshaled all the resources of the state. No governor has had to face so many fires at one time. ... We're doing everything we can to put the fires out and put people's lives back in order."
In San Diego County, the last-ditch defense of Julian came after a disastrous night in which hundreds of homes were destroyed in the mountainous hamlets of Cuyamaca and Pine Hills. Shifting winds kept firefighters racing from one location to another.
No new structures were reported burned inside the city of San Diego, however, and officials said the western portion of the Cedar Fire, nearest the city, was largely contained.
The fire jumped a 50-foot- wide break on the south side of Julian yesterday morning, surprising residents who had been told they could return to their homes in a tree-lined canyon above the tiny town of Santa Ysabel, just north of Julian.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.