Firefighters all but concede defeat to raging wildfires

By Martha Mendoza

Associated Press

RUNNING SPRINGS, Calif. — Serious drought, tree-killing bark beetles and truck-flipping winds. Southern Californians have known for years they were living with the ingredients for devastating wildfires, but this time they are mixing with such violence it shocks people who thought they had seen it all.

More than 350,000 homes had been evacuated by Tuesday. There is so much fire, moving so fiercely, that firefighters often had to throw out their playbook and let the blazes burn.

In the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, Running Springs firefighter Steve Dvorak rubbed smoke-sore eyes as he watched a crew spray water on a small wooden home they were not going to save. Around him dozens more were in flames or already reduced to smoldering foundations.


"We’ve been thinking about this for the last five years, but it’s still unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like it," he said.

More than a dozen wildfires with tentacles of unpredictable, shifting flame have burned across about 640 square miles, killing one person, destroying more than 1,300 homes and causing evacuations on the scale of a major hurricane from north of Los Angeles, through San Diego to the Mexican border. Forty-five people have been injured, including at least 21 firefighters.

More than 300 homes were burned in the San Bernardino Mountains, where retired resident Kim Wurm refused to evacuate. She said she stayed to protect her home and those of her friends, but that she had never seen such devastation in 25 years in "fire country."

"It’s like a bomb went off. It’s like shock and awe. It is shock and awe," she said.

About 1,110 homes, businesses and other buildings burned in San Diego County, where one person died.

In Rancho Santa Fe, a suburb north of San Diego, houses burned just yards from where fire crews fought to contain flames engulfing other properties. Groves of eucalyptus trees exploded in the heat in one ritzy cul-de-sac, sending off a scattered popping that sounded like machine gun fire.

San Diego County estimates, based on census and other data, about 560,000 people were ordered to leave, said Ron Roberts, chairman of the San Diego Board of Supervisors. Thousands more were evacuated in San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Orange counties.

By Tuesday evening, some 50,000 people in San Diego were being allowed to return homes near the ocean as well as portions of the city of Poway, Roberts said. No homes were lost in those neighborhoods.


Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the flames were threatening 68,000 more homes.

"We have had an unfortunate situation that we’ve had three things come together: very dry areas, very hot weather and then a lot of wind," Schwarzenegger said. "And so this makes the perfect storm for a fire."

President Bush, who planned to visit the region Thursday, declared a federal emergency for seven counties, a move that will speed disaster-relief efforts.

The sweeping devastation was reminiscent of blazes that tore through Southern California four years ago, killing 22 and destroying 3,640 homes. The number of people evacuated then, however, was closer to 80,000 people.

As they did in 2003, the ferocious Santa Ana winds have forced crews to discard their traditional strategy and focus on keeping up with the fire and putting out spot blazes that threatened homes.

Fire crews were especially concerned about dense eucalyptus groves in Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe, fearing the highly flammable trees could turn neighborhoods prized for their secluded serenity into potential tinderboxes.

The usual tactic is to surround a fire on two sides and try to choke it off. But with fires whipped by gusts that have surpassed 100 mph, that strategy doesn’t work because embers can be swept miles ahead of the fire’s front line. In those cases, crews must keep 10 to 30 feet back from the flames or risk their own lives, Los Angeles County firefighter Daryl Parish said.

Added Rocklin Fire Department Capt. Martin Holm: "We do what we can. A life’s a lot more important than a house."


Any flame longer than 8 feet is considered unstoppable, and even water and fire retardant will evaporate before they reach the ground, said Gordon Schmidt, a retired U.S. Forest Service deputy director of fire management.

"In these situations, the strategy generally is to fall back," he said. "You pick and choose your priorities in terms of what you can protect. Instead of trying to stop the fire, you try to prevent it from burning resources."

In the suburbs north of San Diego, firefighters did just that as fingers of flame pulsed across a 10-lane freeway and raced up a hill on the opposite side in just seconds. The fire engulfed whitewashed homes at the top of the ridge.

Firefighters parked their rigs in the driveways of the most threatened homes and hosed down fences and open space around homes as a blood-red sun set over a sky choked with smoke and falling ash.

Firefighters battling two fast-moving blazes in Lake Arrowhead, in the San Bernardino Mountains about 130 miles east of Los Angeles, were also taxed by steep terrain, winding roads and a forest packed with dead or dying trees.

Local authorities said there is only so much anyone can do.

"Fire is something that is lived with and tolerated in this part of the country, but these conditions with the winds and the lack of rain and the dead trees are the worst we’ve ever seen," said San Bernardino National Forest ranger Kurt Winchester. "This is basically unprecedented."

The one person confirmed dead was identified as Thomas Varshock of Tecate, a town on the U.S. side of the border southeast of San Diego. He died over the weekend after he ignored warnings to evacuate and authorities left to take care of other evacuations, the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office said.

The medical examiner’s office also listed four other deaths as connected to the wildfires because they occurred during or after evacuations. Three people were in their 90s and died from natural causes; the fourth was a woman who died after falling at a restaurant.

Fighting gusty blazes also puts firefighters in harm’s way. Three firefighters were among seven people in critical condition at University of California San Diego Medical Center Regional Burn Center.

Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather said a dozen firefighters battling blazes in Orange County’s Irvine and Lake Forest areas had to deploy emergency shelters — small fire-resistant tents — or take cover in buildings to escape the flames. He accused state officials of doing too little to get air support, such as tankers, out to the fires more quickly.

"If we’d had the resources earlier to take care of those lines with hand crews, we wouldn’t have been in that situation."

Prather’s comments came minutes before Schwarzenegger, touring fire damage in Lake Arrowhead, promised more help, including more people and equipment. He said he was unaware of the chief’s comments and that he was "very happy that everyone is working so well together under such difficult circumstances."

Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the agency had gone on high alert late last week and shifted resources to the San Diego area in advance of the forecast Santa Ana winds.

On Tuesday, the fire agency took the additional step of declaring the fire season over in Northern California, which allowed it to send virtually every state fire engine, some from as far as 800 miles away, to battle the Southern California fires. Caravans of fire engines could be seen rolling down Interstate 5.

Weather conditions only grew worse, with temperatures across Southern California about 10 degrees above average. Temperatures were in the 90s by mid-afternoon and wind gusts up to 60 mph were expected in mountains and canyons.

In the San Diego suburb of Del Dios, fire destroyed one home but seemed to touch other items at random. Two lawn chairs and an umbrella were left in a burnt, melted heap on the patio. But behind the house, near a murky brown swimming pool, two chaise lounges and a four-foot-tall decorative fountain survived unscathed.

J.C. Playford, an evacuee from the nearby community of Ramona, surveyed the damage and wondered whether his own home was still standing.

"I’ve got two reports, one person told me it’s gone, and one person said it’s still there," he said, "So I have no idea."

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