As California gains upper hand on fires, some may return home

Snow, cooler weather help crews contain blazes

November 02, 2003|By Tony Perry, Daniel Hernandez and Hector Becerra | Tony Perry, Daniel Hernandez and Hector Becerra,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES - One week after wildfires exploded across Southern California, the largest blaze in Ventura County was contained late yesterday, the two fires in San Diego County were expected to be under control by tomorrow, and Big Bear area residents were told they could go home today.

"We deserved a break from Mother Nature, and we finally got one," said Bill Peters of the California Department of Forestry, almost euphoric over the inch of rain that fell over the 108,204-acre Simi fire through the night yesterday.

Rain and even a dusting of snow all but stopped the relentless march of flames from six fires that have left 20 dead, consumed more than 690,967 acres and destroyed 3,337 homes since Friday.

Fire officials were also optimistic because there were few flames in the San Bernardino Mountains even as plumes of smoke continued to rise and tree trunks smoldered. The outlook was so promising that about 200 fire engines and 700 firefighters were sent home, and the evacuation of residents from the Big Bear area was expected to be lifted this morning.

Firefighters said the weather was the turning point, and the National Weather Service's forecast for this week calls for lower temperatures.

Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper said the change in the weather was critical in finally containing the 117,000-acre Simi Valley fire last night.

"The whole north end of the fire was in rugged terrain, and we didn't have any resources to send, or it would have been weeks before we did. It now has a snow blanket on it," said Roper. "The sad thing is that ... after a firefighter dies and hundreds of homes burn, the weather can change so dramatically. Why didn't it do this two days before?"

Even as the flames die down in San Diego County, the controversy over the initial responses to the Cedar and Paradise fires is growing.

Voicing a sentiment that is becoming common among politicians reviewing how agencies responded, an unsmiling Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham, a San Diego Republican, said firmly, "Changes will be made."

One already had. Yesterday, two CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station dropped water on the Paradise fire in the Valley Center area. It was the first time military equipment was permitted to fight the fire because of California Department of Forestry training rules.

A spokesman at Miramar called the move "the beginning of a new era."

An issue not yet resolved is what to do about the hundreds of thousands of dead pine trees standing in the San Bernardino Mountains that had been infested and weakened by bark beetles. Officials with the U.S. Forest Service estimate that the 91,281-acre Old Fire killed only 10 percent to 15 percent of the trees.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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