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Fire in Wrightwood is 'looking a lot better,' officials say

October 4, 2009 |  5:15 pm

Firefighters were cautiously optimistic this afternoon as they continued battling the Sheep fire in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Standing on the shoulder of Lone Pine Canyon Road and surveying the smoldering canyon lands about half a mile east of Wrightwood, San Bernardino County Fire Department spokesman Jay Hausman said, “Things are looking a lot better.

“Overall we are starting to get a handle on this fire, although the battle is not over,” he said. “The weather is a major factor. We’re now going direct -- meaning we have men on the fire line, directly attacking the fire with shovels, axes and hoses.”

Mild winds also enabled a steady stream of helicopters to make precision drops from just a few hundred feet above hot spots. Because the weather was cooperating, hand-crews were also conducting back-burning operations to create buffers between unburned chaparral and trees.

The firefighters had made an all-out assault to prevent the blaze from reaching Wrightwood. It has charred about 3,500 acres of chaparral and timber and triggered the first mandatory evacuation of the mountain town in memory.

The evacuation order was given to the entire community of 3,400 residents at 3 a.m. and fire officials made a stand on the town’s eastern edge. “Our goal is to stop it right here,” said San Bernardino County Fire Department Battalion Chief Rick McClintock. “We’re hoping it will slow down when it slops over this saddle.”

Officials confirmed that three homes had been destroyed and said more structures could be damaged but provided no further details.

The evacuation order unleashed a sense of urgency in the mountain resort town. Some immediately heeded the order, packed their bags and headed down before dawn, many hastily filling their tanks at the only gas station in town. A few bought disposable cameras to photograph their belongings for insurance purposes. The local hardware store sold socks and hats to firefighters and tire-repair kits to customers as they prepared to evacuate.

Others gathered at a bulletin board in the hardware store's parking lot and shared information while keeping a wary eye on United States flags hanging outside restaurants and shops to gauge wind direction and strength. Some grumbled that the nearest evacuation shelter was in Rialto, about 45 miles away. Another shelter, which also was accepting large animals, was set up at the Victorville fairgrounds.

Among the evacuees was Hazel Kordyak, 72, who after filling her gas tank started her engine and muttered, “Ya know, I don’t know where I’m going.

"I’ve lived here 47 years. This is the first mandatory evacuation we’ve ever had," she said. "It’s scary. It’s just me, my toy poodle and cat. I guess we’ll just head down the mountain and make a few calls.”

Helicopters and air tankers had begun attacking the fire at dawn, dousing flames on ridge lines and canyons with water and retardant as hand crews and bulldozers cut fire lines east of town. This morning, much of the concern was focused on Lone Pine Canyon Road on the eastern edge of town, where dozens of homes were threatened.

“The fire is headed in this direction,” said San Bernardino County Fire Department spokesman Maurice Moore. “We’re not saying it will reach Wrightwood homes. We do plan on stopping it.”

The blaze began about 2 p.m Saturday in the Lytle Creek area east of Mt. Baldy and west of the Cajon Pass. It spread rapidly northward, threatening ranches, among other properties, said John Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

Officials say the fire is 10% contained, and the cause is unknown.

-- Louis Sahagun in Wrightwood

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