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Firefighters make stand to save Wrightwood

October 4, 2009 |  2:04 pm


Firefighters were making an all-out assault to prevent a fast-moving brush fire in the San Gabriel Mountains from reaching the community of Wrightwood.

The blaze, which has charred 3,500 acres of chaparral and timber, triggered the first mandatory evacuation in memory of Wrightwood.

By 1 p.m., winds were calming slightly and some residents were becoming a bit more optimistic as some of the ominous black smoke gave way to gray smoke. Firefighters were also aided by lower temperatures of about 65 degrees and 40% humidity.

The fire was burning within half a mile of the eastern edge of Wrightwood, a community of 3,400 residents. Fire officials were hoping to make a stand southeast of the town to prevent the flames from moving into Wrightwood proper, with both crews on the ground and air support.

“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.”

As he spoke, helicopters doused nearby homes with water and engine crews added fire retardant gel to some structures in hopes of protecting them if the flames advanced farther. Elsewhere, bulldozers were climbing steep mountainsides to carve out firebreaks. McClintock said there are about 1,000 homes in Wrightwood, but another concern was about 150 homes and ranches near the intersection of Routes 2 and 138.

Meanwhile, the winds diminished and animals were also evacuating as wood rats were frightened out of the brush by the thick smoke.

Many human residents had already heeded mandatory evacuation orders. They had packed their belongings, with some heading down the mountain while others filled their gas tanks at the only gas station in town. A few purchased snapshot 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 communal bulletin board in the parking lot of the hardware store and shared information while keeping a wary eye on U.S. flags that hung 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 Kardyak, 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 mountain and make a few calls.”

Over at the Village Grind, a local coffeehouse, owner Greg Fleming was giving out free coffee to neighbors, many of whom came in with the same question: “What’s the latest?”

“We’ve been hit by flooding, water shortages, power outages, fires, and once we had so much snow we didn’t get mail for three days around Christmastime,” Fleming said, staring out the window toward billowing smoke in the east. “Now we have wind whipping a fire all over the place and evacuation orders.”

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. Firefighting personnel had doubled overnight, officials said, increasing from 500 to about 1,000.

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 and truck farms, among other properties, said John Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

More than 500 firefighters from the Forest Service and San Bernardino were deployed in the effort to contain the flames. By this morning, the fire was only 10% contained. The cause is unknown.

-- Louis Sahagun in Wrightwood

Photo: Smoke billows as the Sheep fire marches close to homes on the eastern edge of Wrightwood. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times


Interactive map: San Bernardino County Sheep fire


Photos: Fire in the San Gabriel Mountains