Sunday, December 9, 2007

running springs

by Guy McCarthy

RUNNING SPRINGS, Oct. 23 (filed at 8:50 a.m.) -- Dawn emerged in menacing shades of orange and red Tuesday in the smoke-shrouded San Bernardino mountains, where firefighters and residents braced for another day of high winds and uncertainties.

From the posh end of Lake Arrowhead to the secluded enclave of Green Valley Lake, more than 130 homes and structures already lay in ashes.

About 3:30 a.m., Running Springs Fire Chief Bill Smith stood at the top of a narrow road lined with unburned homes and cabins, looking into a steep gorge filled with flaming trees, and recounted what he knew of the destruction in his town since sundown.

"For Running Springs and Green Valley Lake, this is worse than the Old Fire," Smith said softly, recalling the devastating firestorms four years ago. "We're losing a lot of homes tonight. Probably 30 here, not counting Green Valley Lake. We'll get a better count in the morning."

If Smith's estimate was accurate, more than 150 homes had burned in the San Bernardino Mountains as of Tuesday morning.

Further east in Green Valley Lake, firefighters and law enforcement officers had been ordered to pull out of the town of about 800 residents. Flames were crowning through torching treetops late Monday, and with only one narrow, winding road in and out, it was deemed too dangerous for overnight structure protection.

No one in the firefighting and public safety community would fault Smith or anyone else for exercising caution when gusting Santa Ana winds stoke flames in the drought-stricken San Bernardino National Forest.

Nearly a year ago and less than 50 miles away, five Forest Service firefighters were killed in another wind-driven firestorm authorities said was ignited by an arsonist.

Meanwhile early Tuesday, no fire officials or law enforcement officers in Running Springs or nearby Arrowbear had any knowledge of what had transpired overnight in Green Valley Lake.

"We tried to get everybody to leave, starting way before sundown," Smith said. "Some people just didn't want to go. We told them, 'You're on your own.' "

Two pre-dawn attempts to drive the side road off Highway 18 up to Green Valley Lake showed why public safety officials withdrew. The town's boosters take pride in billing the community as the highest in the San Bernardino National Forest, above 7,000 feet elevation.

But like so many other idyllic spots in Southern California, beatific qualities come replete with hazards.

The same altitude that normally brings clear skies and ample sunshine also places Green Valley Lake in the path of some of the strongest wind gusts in the mountains.

More than a dozen homes had already burned there Monday. At 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. Tuesday, dense smoke reduced visibility to nearly zero, flames and embers crept along the roadsides, and a threatening orange glow filled the immediate horizon.

A check on the persistent souls of Green Valley Lake would have to wait. Smith, who lives near Running Springs, said he and many of his co-workers and neighbors have prepared for the disaster still unfolding in their tight-knit community, and they're grateful that so far no one had been seriously injured. But that doesn't make it any easier to cope with mounting property losses.

"It's difficult to fight fire in your own community and watch your town's homes burning," Smith said. "We've got firefighters and firefighter families and neighbors losing homes."

Under overhanging canopies of parched pines surrounding homes near Highway 18, fire engines growled slowly back and forth through ember-popping, orange-tinted gloom. Some firefighters walked, observing, but able to do little else as each fresh gust of wind unleashed showers of sparks that spread more flames slowly but surely.

At an intersection with Wilderness Road about 4:30 a.m., angry furnaces of condensed fire roared and screamed as they consumed several structures, including an A-frame residence.

Beleaguered fire commanders like Smith hope aircraft can fly early and often today. As dawn crept in Tuesday under a red-tinted moon and towering heads of smoke and ash, what the day would bring remained uncertain at best.


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