Firefighters clearing 30-mile path around Calif. resort communi

Saturday, November 1, 2003

BIG BEAR LAKE, Calif. -- Hundreds of firefighters battling Southern California's wildfires used a break in the weather Friday to bulldoze buffer zones around mountain communities in case the heat and fierce winds return.

"We've got a sleeping giant out there," Forest Service spokeswoman Sue Exline said.

Fog, lower temperatures and lighter winds since Thursday have helped firefighters make progress against the fires that have killed 20 people, destroyed more than 2,800 homes and burned nearly 750,000 acres across Southern California over the past week.

The other major community still threatened was Bear Lake, a resort town in the San Bernardino Mountains northeast of Los Angeles.

A blaze that has scorched 69,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes moved to within 10 miles of the town, emptied out of some 15,000 people earlier in the week.

"The fire is just creeping around, not making these big runs that we had seen," Exline said.

But forecasters said the heat and dry desert winds that whipped the flames into infernos could return early next week, and so fire crews raced to cut 30 miles of firebreaks to protect communities around the lake.

They cleared brush and trees from zones 100 feet wide to deprive the fire of fuel. The firelines were as close as 50 yards to some homes.

"This is an opportunity," Exline said. "We can get in there in the next 48 hours to fight the fire on our own terms, without the forces of the weather."

Meanwhile, California's biggest blaze -- 275,000-acre fire burning in the mountains northeast of San Diego -- was 65 percent contained, and firefighters said the threat had eased against Julian, an old Gold Rush town that is now a weekend getaway known for its apple orchards.

"If I was a betting man, which I'm not, I'd say the town is pretty safe -- safe from burning but not safe to come back in," said sheriff's Sgt. Steven Wood.

In all, seven fires were still burning across four counties. Winds have carried the smoke as far north and east as the Plains and the Great Lakes, as satellite images from NASA have shown.

While thousands have fled the Big Bear area, a few people stayed behind to protect their property.

Kelly Bragdon sat at the bar at the Log Cabin Restaurant, sipping a beer and watching news reports of flames blazing through the forest.

"I've got too much to lose to leave here," Bragdon said. "I don't think we're jeopardizing anybody's lives but our own, just trying to save what we've got, everything we've worked for."

Craig Brewster, owner of the Robinhood Resort hotel just off Big Bear Lake, stayed in town and opened up his place for firefighters.

"It's a ghost town right now, strange," he said. "It's a weird feeling. We'd typically be getting ready for trick-or-treaters."

Ellen Bechtol, 43, looked to the dark clouds over the mountains and hoped the cooler weather would tame the raging fire. Bechtol and her family were evacuated from Running Springs on Sunday and have been living at the evacuation center at the San Bernardino Airport, waiting for word about when they can return.

"To sit here and worry about tomorrow is going to stress me out too much," she said. "It could be definitely worse, but I believe God will take care of us."


Associated Press Writers Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this story.

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