Archive for Sunday, November 2, 2003

Firefighters say threat lessened but not over

November 2, 2003

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— The massive blaze creeping toward this mountain resort town came to a standstill Saturday, prompting fire officials to let many residents return home.

"It's lying there right now not doing anything," Big Bear City Fire Chief Dana VanLuven said. "The threat is still very real, but we are confident we can hold it off."

Residents of Big Bear Valley were given the go-ahead to return home starting this morning, VanLuven said. Residents in the Lake Arrowhead area, roughly 20 miles west, already had begun returning.

Light snow and cooler temperatures aided firefighters, who raced to bulldoze firebreaks around communities in the San Bernardino Mountains to prepare for hot, dry winds they expected within days. Work along the south side of the lake, however, was suspended because of concerns about archaeological and sensitive plant sites.

The wet, chilly weather slowed the march of the blaze, which has scorched more than 90,000 acres, destroyed about 850 homes and killed four people. It was 45 percent contained after moving within eight miles of Big Bear Lake.

Even with the danger reduced for now, "the safest route for the public would be to stay out of the area," said Anne Westling, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Forest Service. "The threat has abated in the short term but folks need to recognize that the threat is not over."

Crews also worked to remove debris and clear roads for the eventual return of the 15,000 people who were evacuated earlier this week. Firefighters burned piles of dead trees and dry brush near the small community of Sugarloaf.

"With this inclement weather, they feel they can burn that stuff safely, which will provide increased fire safety for communities later on this week when the wind and weather conditions are expected to change," Westling said.

There was a negative side to the snow and rain that fell overnight Friday. The precipitation caused a mud and rock slide that closed Highway 18, a major road in the area. A number of trees also fell after being weakened by fire and a previous infestation of bark beetles.

"We've got trees coming down like dominoes," Forest Service spokesman Steve Ritchie said.

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