Weather comes to the rescue in California wildfires

`Air of optimism' takes hold as firefighters begin to gain control of blazes

November 01, 2003|By Alan Zarembo, Seema Mehta and Scott Glover | Alan Zarembo, Seema Mehta and Scott Glover,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES - Bone-weary firefighters began to gain a measure of control yesterday over wildfires that have engulfed Southern California's forests and burned thousands of homes, aided by plummeting temperatures that put a damper on the unchecked flames and brought on the season's first dusting of snow.

"There's a great air of optimism," said Gene Zimmerman, the U.S. Forest Service supervisor for the San Bernardino National Forest. "We're not out of the woods, but the tide is turning, and hopefully it continues to."

Even as he spoke, crews worked to clear a wide fire line around San Bernardino County mountain resorts hoping to protect them from flames when anticipated warm weather and strong winds return next week.

"We've got a sleeping giant out there," said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Sue Exline at a Big Bear briefing nearby. "We've got to get these in now."

The short-term weather prognosis was mixed, with the National Weather Service issuing a winter weather advisory through today, predicting rain and snow in the mountains. But it also predicted winds gusting to 40 mph and dense fog that could hamper firefighting operations.

The six fires, by some measures the most devastating in California history, continued to burn from Ventura to the Mexican border. But firefighters were able to gain a modicum of control over them and hoped to make more progress during the moist weather conditions. The fires have consumed 743,035 acres, left 20 dead, destroyed 2,805 homes and cost almost $50 million to fight. In all, more than 14,500 firefighters, many of them from out of state, have battled the blazes.

Winds have carried smoke from the fires as far north and east as the Great Plains and Great Lakes regions, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which uses Earth-orbiting satellites to track the plumes.

Although the fires still present a danger, residents in some areas began returning to homes they were relieved to find untouched, while others discovered only rubble. In northern San Bernardino County, Robert Fine, 67, spent Friday digging though the remains of his house, looking for salvageable belongings. The hulk of his ruined 1927 Model T roadster sat where the garage once stood.

He said he had not expected the fire to reach his neighborhood. "We're just numb at this point," he said. "We walked out with the clothing on our backs."

Meanwhile, the White House announced that President Bush will travel to California on Tuesday to survey the wildfire damage. While in California, the president will "receive an update on our efforts to assist the people of California," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said in Crawford, Texas, where Bush is staying for the next several days.

Bush has designated Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties as disaster areas, and has ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.

Elsewhere, Gov. Gray Davis and Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared together in the charred hills of Claremont and vowed to work together to ease rebuilding efforts for families made homeless by the fires.

San Bernardino County officials said they were working to reopen the mountain communities to residents who were evacuated. But they also cautioned that fire remained a threat and that the roads were extremely hazardous, with guardrails destroyed and debris scattered on the highways.

The county also announced that it was establishing a one-stop emergency assistance center at San Bernardino International Airport to provide an array of government services. The center will have as many as 40 information booths staffed by various government agencies.

Sixteen bulldozers were working around the Big Bear Valley building firebreaks during the lull in the weather. Eight bulldozers were working south of Big Bear Lake, trying to cut a 64-foot-wide swath through 20 miles of forest. By Friday afternoon, they had only gone 3 1/2 miles.

"It's been slow going because it's pretty rough country," said Terry Molzahn, operations section chief for the U.S. Forest Service, who is overseeing the project.

Late yesterday afternoon, California Highway Patrol officers re-opened Highway 38 to residents of Forest Falls and Mountain Homes Village, mountain hamlets that are about 30 miles from San Bernardino. But Big Bear remained off limits, and California Highway Patrol officers said people had been trying to get around the roadblock.

Sheriff's investigators said the death toll from the Cedar fire is almost certain to rise as the remains of recluses living in remote areas and illegal aliens are discovered.

"There's more of them out there," said Sgt. Conrad Grayson, head of the sheriff department's bomb and arson squad. "That's a given."

Grayson said hermetic loners live in remote regions of eastern San Diego County where even their homes would be difficult to find.

Grayson said he suspected that illegal immigrants hiding in the mountains were also killed by the fire, which ripped through several well-traveled smuggling routes.

San Diego County officials announced formation of a task force to look into "the initial fire suppression" efforts aimed at the Cedar fire that erupted Saturday and destroyed 1,754 homes and burned more than 300,000 acres.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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