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Fire crews get an assist from weather

By Associated Press
Published October 31, 2003

BIG BEAR LAKE, Calif. - Fog and drizzle Thursday came to the rescue of firefighters laboring to save resort towns in Southern California from the raging wildfires that have killed at least 20 people.

"It is helping, but it is a long way from putting any fires out," said Ray Snodgrass, chief deputy director of the California Forestry Department. "It's the respite we were hoping for."

The forecast, however, also called for gusting winds that could drive the flames into more homes.

Firefighters dug in to protect hundreds of homes still threatened in San Bernardino and San Diego counties. But only a few hundred acres of thick forest were burned overnight by one of the most devastating and erratic of the fires - a 50,000-acre blaze east of Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains.

"That's minimal for this fire, considering 20,000 burned the first day," said Battalion Chief Dan Odom of the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

The wildfires have blazed for more than a week across Southern California, destroying more than 2,600 homes and blackening around 730,000 acres. On Thursday, seven major fires were still burning in four counties.

On Wednesday, wind-driven flames burned about 350 homes in Cedar Glen in the San Bernardinos.

John Lucas, 38, said he was able to save three houses on his property, including the one where his wife and her brothers were born, by building a $60,000 fire system with two 5,500-gallon water tanks. The system consists of a network of hoses that keep the buildings and the grounds wet.

"It wasn't luck. My family and I expended a lot of preparation just for this scenario," said the former U.S. Forest Service firefighter.

Others whose homes were left relatively unscathed Thursday were residents of Sunset Pointe and Stevenson Ranch outside Santa Clarita, despite flames coming within feet of new $400,000 dwellings.

On Thursday morning, the fire had advanced to within 12 miles of the mountain resort town of Big Bear as crews spread fire-resistant gel on houses and cleared debris around them. They were helped by a heavy fog that rolled in overnight.

In San Diego County, where the state's largest fire killed a firefighter on Wednesday, many of his comrades wore black bands on their badges. Steve Rucker, 38, died while battling a blaze that has burned more than 270,000 acres and some 1,500 homes. He was the first firefighter to die in this outbreak of fires.

"We have a somber mood and we need to be somber, but it's time to move ahead," incident commander John Hawkins told the firefighters. "Get your chin up and move out."

About 100 fire engines encircled the historic mining town of Julian in the mountains of eastern San Diego County. Saving the town of 3,500, a popular weekend getaway renowned for its vineyards and apple orchards, was the county's top priority.

Light rain, fog and drizzle were reported in Julian, but winds of 25 to 30 mph were expected throughout the day. As the winds picked up, floating embers sparked spot fires near town and forced some crews to retreat.

The state is spending an estimated $9-million a day fighting the wildfires, a near doubling of the estimate just two days ago. The total cost of fighting the fires could reach $200-million, and the toll on the California economy has been put at $2-billion.

California fires by the numbers

Deaths caused: 20

Injuries: 96

Homes destroyed: More than 2,600

Acres burned: Almost 730,000

Firefighting personnel: Almost 12,800

Number of fires reported since Oct. 21: 13

Out-of-control fires: 7


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