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California Fires Threaten Mountain Resort

October 31, 2003

BIG BEAR LAKE, Calif. (AP) _ In the mountains northeast of Los Angeles, a few hardy residents dangled garden hoses from roofs and waited nervously to see if flames would swarm over a ridge and claim the last sizable town still threatened by Southern California’s deadly wildfires.

Seven fires still burned in four counties. However, the resort high up in the San Bernardino National Forest was the only major community still threatened after a week of fires that have killed 20 people, destroyed 2,817 homes and burned nearly 750,000 acres.

Cooler weather helped firefighters make progress elsewhere Thursday but the sudden weather change proved a mixed blessing here _ bringing higher humidity but also a gusting wind that fanned flames.

Fog moved into the area overnight and Friday’s high was expected to be a chilly 44, with a chance of snow by nightfall, but winds could still gust to 31 mph.

Kelly Bragdon bellied up to the bar at the Log Cabin Restaurant on Thursday night, sipping a beer and watching television news reports of flames blazing through the forest less than 10 miles away.

While some 15,000 people in the area chose to heed warnings and flee, Bragdon and a few others chose to stay and watch over their property.

``I’ve got too much to lose to leave here,″ Bragdon said. ``I don’t think we’re jeopardizing anybody’s lives but our own, just trying to save what we’ve got, everything we’ve worked for.″

During the day, tumbleweeds and trash bags tossed across empty roads. Firefighters dug in and cut lines the width of 10 bulldozers through the forest in an effort to head off flames that had burned some 350 homes in Cedar Glen near Lake Arrowhead.

Officials worried that the blaze _ which at times moved a quarter-mile a minute, by one firefighter’s account _ could sweep over the ridge and engulf the lakeside community of Fawnskin and the rest of the Big Bear Valley.

Craig Brewster owns the Robinhood Resort hotel just off Big Bear Lake. He stayed in town and opened up his place for firefighters.

``It’s a ghost town right now, strange,″ he said. ``It’s a weird feeling. We’d typically be getting ready for trick-or-treaters.″

Brewster said Halloween night usually brings about 4,500 people to the shop-lined streets of the village off Big Bear Boulevard.

Brewster said he was packed and ready to go if the fire blows into town.

``We could go in five minutes,″ Brewster said. ``Who knows, if the winds change it could come right at us.″

``It’s unpredictable. We’re not out of the woods yet,″ said Dana VanLuven, fire chief in neighboring Big Bear City.

At the same time, plans were being considered on how to eventually return refugees to their homes.

``We’re in the situation now where we need to start preparing for a return,″ VanLuven said. ``Bringing these people back up can be just as complicated as getting them down.″

Meanwhile in San Diego County, moist air helped firefighters battling the Cedar Fire near Julian, a popular weekend getaway renowned for its vineyards and apple orchards.

The fire ``is finally showing some sign of winding down,″ San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender said. Authorities hoped they soon could begin allowing more residents to return to check on their homes.

The Cedar Fire is the largest individual blaze in California history at 272,318 acres, eclipsing the 1932 Matilaja Fire in Ventura County that burned 220,000 acres, state officials said.

In Julian, many firefighters wore black bands on their badges in memory of a colleague who was killed Wednesday.

``We have a somber mood and we need to be somber, but it’s time to move ahead,″ incident commander John Hawkins told firefighters. ``Get your chin up and move out.″

In Escondido, hundreds of mourners gathered for a memorial service for Ashleigh Roach, a 16-year-old who died Sunday while trying to escape from flames that destroyed her family’s home.

A bagpipe player stood outside the California Center for the Arts, where her flower-draped white casket was escorted by firefighters and law enforcement officers. Her 20-year-old sister, Allyson, was severely burned while escaping the Paradise Fire and remained hospitalized in critical condition.

In all, nearly 13,000 firefighters and support personnel were fighting what Gov. Gray Davis said may be the worst and costliest disaster California has ever faced.

The state is spending an estimated $9 million a day fighting the wildfires. The total cost of fighting the blazes could reach $200 million, while the blazes take a $2 billion toll on the California economy, state officials said.

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Associated Press Writers Pauline Arrillaga, Martha Mendoza, Ken Ritter, Andrew Bridges and Alexandria Sage contributed to this story.

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