CBSN

Flames Menace Mountain Towns

Firefighters discuss a plan of action as the Old Fire blazes in the background along state highway 18 near Running Springs, Calif., in the San Bernardino Mountains on Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2003. The hot Santa Ana wind that has been driving California's most destructive wildfires in history was giving way to cooler, more humid conditions Wednesday, but that did little to tame the blazing tide as crews fought to save more homes.
AP
With towering flames bearing down on Southern California mountain towns, firefighters dug in to protect hundreds of homes Thursday while looking for more help from lower temperatures.

In the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, relentless flames engulfed hundreds of homes Wednesday on a wind-driven march toward the resort towns of Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead. Thousands of people were evacuated.

To the south, in San Diego County, the state's largest fire claimed the life of a firefighter Wednesday when a crew was overcome by flames near Wynola. Three other crew members were critically injured.

"It just swept right over them. They probably didn't have time to get out of the way," San Diego County sheriff's Sgt. Conrad Grayson said.

The firefighter, Steve Rucker, a 38-year-old fire engineer from the Novato Fire Protection District near San Francisco, died while battling the Cedar Fire, which has burned more than 250,000 acres and 1,400 homes.

He was the first firefighter among the 20 people who have died in the week of wildfires that have devastated parts of Southern California. The fires have destroyed more than 2,600 homes and blackened more than 660,000 acres — about 1,030 square miles, or roughly the size of Rhode Island.

"It's like trying to control chaos," fire Engineer Brian Janey of the Camp Pendleton Fire Department said as he battled the Old fire, which claimed about 350 homes in and around Cedar Glen, just east of Lake Arrowhead. The old fire was only 10 percent contained.

Col, moist breezes replaced the hotter and drier Santa Ana wind that had whipped fires into raging infernos over the weekend. But the wind, which gusted to 60 mph early Wednesday, pushed flames up from the mountain slopes into the dense forest between Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake. The wind kept aircraft grounded in the area, further hindering firefighting efforts.

A heavy fog covered parts of the San Bernardino Mountains overnight, and some light rain was reported. Temperatures were expected to peak only in the mid-50s on Thursday, further aiding the firefighting effort.

"So that's the good news, but there is a red flag warning for high winds up to 40 mph," said Bonni Corcoran, a fire information officer. Structures had been destroyed in the Twin Peaks area, she said.

On Southern California's other major front, about 100 fire engines encircled the historic mining town of Julian in the mountains of eastern San Diego County. Saving the town of 3,500, a popular weekend getaway renowned for its vineyards and apple orchards, was the county's top priority.

But as winds picked up, floating embers sparked spot fires near town and forced some crews to retreat.

South of Julian, about 90 percent of the homes were destroyed in Cuyamaca, a lakeside town of about 160 residents.

San Diego County fire officials have worried for days that the Cedar Fire and the 49,800-acre Paradise Fire would merge into a huge, single blaze that would make it nearly impossible to keep it from reaching Julian. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the Cedar fire was 15 percent contained, and the Paradise fire, 20 percent.

In the past week, fires burned in a broken arc across Southern California, from Ventura County east to the San Bernardino Mountains and south to eastern San Diego County. Seven fires were burning in four counties as of early Thursday.

Some were believed set by arsonists; the Cedar Fire was ignited by a lost hunter's signal fire.

A 105,000-acre blaze in the Santa Clarita area about 35 miles north of Los Angeles moved away from neighborhoods and was 40 percent contained.

In all, nearly 12,000 firefighters and support personnel were fighting what Gov. Gray Davis said may be the costliest disaster California has ever faced.

The state is spending an estimated $9 million a day fighting the wildfires, a near doubling of the daily estimate just two days ago. The total cost of fighting the fires could reach $200 million, while the blazes take a $2 billion toll on the California economy, state officials said.

On Wednesday, a steady stream of vehicles loaded with furniture, televisions and other household items inched down the mountain from Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead.

Other residents, however, defied the warnings of firefighters and decided to stay to protect their homes.

"I'm afraid, but I've got a lot of faith," Chrisann Maurer said as she watered down her yard and home against a stiff, smoke-filled breeze. "I just think there is enough people praying that we might be safe."

In the San Diego suburb of Scripps Ranch, 300 homes were devoured by flames. The only home left standing belonged to the Homel family.

"It was really sad," Steve Homel told the CBS News Early Show. "As we drove down my street and I saw my house, I broke down even more and although it's a miracle that our house is still here, it's a tragedy of what has happened to Scripps Ranch and the rest of San Diego."