Mountain residents want to go home
With the Grass Valley Fire in Lake Arrowhead virtually contained, pressure built for commanders to reopen mountain areas. But firefighters were still a long way off from getting control of the 12,000-acre Slide fire.
They had made great strides building a line around the threatened communities of Arrowbear and Running Springs. But the smoldering fires within Running Springs from the blaze's early runs still posed hidden dangers. Even with dozens of crews doing structure protection, fire ravaged a large portion of a home in western Running Springs early today, though firefighters were able to save a portion and many of the contents by launching an interior attack.
"The guys had just been in that area within an hour looking around and didn't see anything, and the next time they came through they saw a deck on fire," Jack Froggatt, a Kern County battalion chief. Firefighters are creating a grid in Running Springs today, he said, checking each home for hot spots, as long as enough crews are available.
"They are going to walk through every property … but even so, it's not going to be 100% because [threats] don't always show," Froggatt said. "If the sun's not on it, if it's in the shade, then you won't even see it and you have no idea that there's heat there. Later on in the day when the sun gets on it, then [the flames] just start coming alive. There can be heat there that's undetected" for up to a week, he said.
On those uncontained northern and western flanks of the blaze, the Slide fire was moving into areas burned by the Old Fire – but because of the drought those old burned areas were not containing the fire's spread as they might have in wetter years.
"In normal years, firefighters consider those burned out areas really good fire breaks. … But they can't count on that in this fire," said Kelly Martin, fire chief of Yosemite National Park who is a fire behavior specialist on the Slide fire.
Firefighters were muscling into that northwest and western area to try to get control of the fire before winds shift, which is expected as early as Sunday. On Sunday and Monday morning, drier, northeasterly winds coming off the desert could potentially push the Slide fire west toward Lake Arrowhead, officials said.
Martin said the wind speeds would not be as great as those from Santa Ana winds, but could present major challenges for firefighters on that northwest line.
As the Slide fire became the top priority fire in Southern California, fire engines and crews from as far away as the East Coast continued to pour into the mountains.
With little more than 15 percent of the Slide Fire contained and new wind threats for the weekend, commanders were still shying away from predicting a date when mountain residents could come home.
"Basically our concern is getting the infrastructure back up," said George Corley, the chief of San Bernardino County Fire's Mountain Division and a unified incident commander who is on the team making decisions about re-entry. "A lot of people probably think that [firefighters] pull out and after it's over they can go back in, but there's a lot of things we need to do."
The mountain is covered in downed power lines, with wires severed and open along the roadways. Another concern is bacteria in the water lines after firefighters drained some of the water systems putting out the blaze. It could take up to two days to test the water systems, Corley said. Major gas hazards still exist around burned homes.
On the minds of many firefighters today was the one-year anniversary of the Esperanza fire, which led to the deaths of five U.S. Forest Service workers. "With that in mind keep your situational awareness up," a safety officer warned the crews during the briefing.
A moment of silence is planned on the radios at noon to remember the fallen five of U.S. Forest Service Engine 57.
-- Maeve Reston