Thousands flee fires; exhausted crews near San Diego pull back

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- Tens of thousands of people fled mountain communities in San Diego and San Bernardino counties Tuesday and caused a traffic jam on a narrow mountain highway as frantic residents raced to avoid California's deadliest wildfires in more than a decade.

Frustrated firefighters said there was little they could do to stop the flames, and exhausted crews in San Diego County were pulled back even though two devastating blazes began merging near Julian, a mountain town of 3,500 known for its apple crop.

To the north, about 80,000 full-time residents have been evacuated from the San Bernardino mountains since Saturday. Tens of thousands fled on Tuesday alone.

"Just about everything is burning," said William Bagnell, fire chief of the Crest Forest Fire Protection District.

Authorities announced two more deaths in San Bernardino County on Tuesday, bringing the death toll from the fires to 16. The number had been at 17, but San Diego County authorities lowered their figure by one.

Nearly 1,600 homes have been destroyed, and 10,000 firefighters were on the front lines throughout the state. Gov. Gray Davis estimated the cost at nearly $2 billion.

Since Oct. 21, at least 10 wind-driven wildfires -- many of them arson-caused -- have rampaged through Southern California, demolishing neighborhoods, gutting businesses and blackening more than half a million acres of land from the Mexican border to the Ventura-Los Angeles county line.

Just west of Julian, dozens of fire crews tried to protect homes from flames eating through brush, pine and oak.

A five-member crew pulled up outside a concrete and stucco home and went to work carrying down awnings and using chain saws to cut away shrubs. As they worked, propane tanks popped in the distance, sending columns of black smoke into a sky already painted orange by flames.

'Three days of battle'

In San Diego County, a blaze of more than 200,000 acres formed a 45-mile front stretching into Scripps Ranch and Julian. The fire was just miles from joining with a 37,000-acre fire near Escondido.

The two fires have destroyed more than 900 homes. If they join up, the flames would cut off escape routes and whip up the wind.

Reinforcements were sent out, but Rich Hawkins, a U.S. Forest Service fire chief, said he needed twice as many firefighters.

"They're so fatigued that despite the fact the fire perimeter might become much larger, we're not willing to let the firefighters continue any further," he said. "They are too fatigued from three days of battle."

Authorities believe the largest, nicknamed the Cedar Fire, was set by a lost hunter trying to signal rescuers. The state forestry department issued Sergio Martinez, 33, a misdemeanor citation for setting an unauthorized fire.

On Tuesday, the fire destroyed 90 percent of Cuyamaca, a town of 160 people about 10 miles south of Julian.

"I'm sad to say the community of Cuyamaca was destroyed this afternoon," CDF chief Bill Clayton told San Diego's KFMB-TV.

In some areas, the flames are feeding on millions of dead trees, weakened by drought and killed by a bark beetle infestation. Officials were particularly worried about "crowning," where flames leap from one treetop to another, leaving firefighters on the ground all but powerless to stop them.

"If that occurs, we don't have the capability to put those fires out," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Carol Beckley said. "It will be a firestorm."

On the highway near Julian, high walls of flames lit up a mountain ridge along Lake Cuyamaca. The blaze sounded like an explosion as flames tore across the dry brush and trees.

Glenn Wagner, San Diego County chief medical examiner, said he expects the death toll to rise even more as crews begin inspecting the hundreds of charred homes.

"This fire was so fast," he said. "I'm sure we're going to find folks who simply never had a chance to get out of their houses."

Some victims died within view of San Vicente Lake, a boating and fishing destination in Ramona. "Could you imagine looking out at all that water in San Vicente Lake and still dying in the fire?" Wagner said.

Hawkins, of the Forest Service, said lunches intended for firefighters on Monday were not delivered until Tuesday morning.

"It's like war. This whole fire has been a war so far," Hawkins said. "What the firefighters are facing is a lack of sleep, a lack of food, a lack of diesel fuel in some cases and a lack of logistical support."

Ken Hale, a state Forestry Department division chief who had been on the fire line for 55 hours, said firefighters even drove to nearby towns to gas up their vehicles and buy fast food. But it is all part of the job, he said.

"As soon as I found out people had died, it changes the entire outlook on the fire. It goes from being an adversary, a worthy adversary, to something that's very deadly, a monster," Hale said as he headed for some sleep.

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