Firefighter Josh Balboa monitors the Harris fire in southern San Diego County. Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times
Most of Lake Arrowhead reopened to residents
Most but not all San Bernardino Mountain communities affected by the wildfires reopened to residents at noon today.
Mandatory evacuation orders were lifted for the majority of Lake Arrowhead and the communities of Twin Peaks, Rim Forest, Blue Jay, Agua Fria, Deer Lodge Park, Sky Forest and Cedar Glen. Reentry passes are not required.
A mandatory evacuation order remains in effect for areas of Lake Arrowhead, Running Springs, Arrowbear and Green Valley Lake that suffered extensive fire damage.
Highways 18 and 138 will reopen to traffic in areas where the mandatory evacuation orders have been lifted.
Staff from the San Bernardino County Environmental Health Department will be at mountain fire stations passing out gloves, masks and information for returning residents.
Power was off in many areas long enough to spoil food. Since the power was restored, items have had time to refreeze. County officials warn that these food items are a potential health hazard.
California 330 and roads to Running Springs remain closed.
The Slide fire, which has chewed through nearly 13,000 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest, is expected to be fully contained by Tuesday, fire officials said this morning. They reported that the blaze is 75% contained.
Cooler weather, which has greatly aided firefighters, is expected to continue today, with winds at 5 mph to 10 mph, scattered clouds, temperatures in the low 70s and humidity of as much as 30%.
At Snow Valley ski resort, the command post for the Slide fire, firefighters awoke Saturday morning to a hopeful sign: They could no longer see flames licking the ridgeline.
In recent days, many of the engine crews had turned to snuffing out spot fires in Running Springs or were clearing land near Lake Arrowhead in case the wind kicked up and the fire dashed west.
They also surveyed the Slide fire's devastation -- homes hollowed out amid dead trees that turned streets into tinderboxes.
The last few nights, Joe Hatfield, a fire captain for the city of Ontario, has scoured parts of the San Bernardino National Forest for flaming tree trunks and loose embers. Sometimes, his thoughts slowed and his eyes drooped -- but only briefly.
"Sure, this work we're doing isn't glamorous. But if we miss something, someone's house could go up like that," he said.
He was reminded of that Friday morning, when he was on mop-up duty in Running Springs.
A strike team nearby found flames. The fire quickly raced from underneath a deck to a house and into the attic before firefighters put it out.
"Just when you think nothing's happening, something does," he said.
Firefighters were making headway in efforts to halt the Slide fire's march west toward Lake Arrowhead, fire officials said Saturday morning.
Firefighters were working today to shore up the blaze's northwest corner, which has crept into areas burned by the Old fire, through low grass and tree limbs that remain.
Overnight, hand crews cut a line in the unruly fire's southwest corner amid steep, rocky terrain and near the burned-over community of Fredalba. There is a contingency line to the west.
Hand crews also worked the fire's northern edge, near Crab Flats, said Tom Hatcher, the fire's operations section chief.
Temperatures hovering in the high 60s, light winds and humidity at 18% to 25% should help firefighting efforts, officials said. A dozen helicopters crossed red-tinged clouds, dousing flames with water. The blaze is 25% contained and is the state's No. 2 firefighting priority.
More than 1,900 fire personnel are battling the blaze, a significantly larger force than in previous days. The blaze has cost $4.5 million to fight.
To the west, the Grass Valley fire was 85% contained.
San Bernardino won't immediately release list of destroyed homes
San Bernardino County officials said late Friday that they're not ready to release a list of homes damaged and destroyed in the Slide and Grass Valley fires. Earlier, they said they hoped to release the list today on the county assessor's site. No word on when the list might be posted, according to a written statement from a county spokesperson.
362 homes lost in Running Springs and Grass Valley Lake
San Bernardino Mountains:
Firefighters reported 20% containment on the Slide fire, which had bored through 13,700 acres by this evening. Officials said they lost 201 residences and 3 outbuildings. There was only one home lost today, in Running Springs. With resources freed up from other fires, the total number of personnel jumped from 1,359 this morning to 1,964 by this evening.
The Grass Valley fire was 75% contained at 1,140 acres. Twenty homes were damaged and 162 destroyed, according to the new estimates.
Hometown fire chief faces neighbors who lost houses
In the first quiet day in Running Springs, the fire chief who watched his town nearly go up in smoke finally found some quiet moments to sift through paperwork. Chief Bill Smith was up for the first 50 hours of the San Bernardino Mountain firestorm -- among the first to respond to the Grass Valley Fire and then racing back to the Slide when it flared up in his community a short time later.
Firefighters lost the last structure in Running Springs this morning. In the early evening, the fatigue was finally settling in.
"When you have homes burning you have enough adrenaline that it kind of keeps you going," said Smith, who spent 30 years fighting fires with the U.S. Forest Service before retiring as the Mountaintop Division Chief. "Once in a while you get to the point where you're exhausted but you just move on."
"The hardest thing for any fire chief is to lose any structures... but especially the impact of losing so many homes is just heartwrenching,"
Smith has been the Running Springs chief for nine years.
"Most of us fight fires a lot of years and go to other people's jurisdiction fighting fires, but it's a totally different feeling when it's your own community."
Not only would he have to contend with residents coming back to homes that have vanished into ash, but fire continues to burn in the steep, inaccessible canyons to the west.
"That will pose a threat possibly until the snow flies," he said.
Deep in the pines of the San Bernardino National Forest, about four miles east of where the Slide fire began in Green Valley Lake, firefighters struggled with exhaustion as they beat down hot spots with shovels and axes.
The goal was to build a containment line around Crab Flats before a predicted wind shift Sunday that could direct the fire toward Lake Arrowhead and possibly parts of Running Springs again. But the adrenaline was gone.
"We're all at a kind of plodding pace, everyone has got blisters on top of blisters and we're losing our voices," said Mike Rigney, a Lake Arrowhead-based fire captain with the San Bernardino Fire Department.
Sleep? "We got four or five hours somewhere in the third day," Rigney said.
Nancy Duncan made so many new friends at the Orange Show Fairgrounds evacuation center that she wasn’t sure she wanted to leave today .
“They are having barbecue tonight -- are you sure you don’t want to stay one more night?” she asked her daughter-in-law, Nicole Duncan, 35. “It’s really been wonderful. I got Arnold’s [Schwarzenegger] autograph and played cards with the grandkids in the van. I’ve been on television three times. It’s been really, really wonderful.”
Nicole on the other hand couldn't wait to get home for a real shower. Her kids, however, also wanted to stay.
“I thought there would be more enthusiasm about leaving,” Nicole said.
Authorities today allowed residents of Crestline, Enchanted Valley and Cedar Pines Park to go home, thinning the evacuation center ranks, which numbered about 1,800 Thursday. New numbers were not available.
Chris Navarette, 45, was plenty excited about going home.
“It was nice for awhile but it’s time to go now,” he said. “I feel very fortunate because I have friends who have lost everything.”
Refugees from the Lake Arrowhead, Green Valley Lake, Grass Valley and Running Springs areas remain at the shelter.