Firefighters battled desperately Wednesday to stop wildfires from destroying two beloved Southern California getaways, Lake Arrowhead and the historic mountain town of Julian, east of San Diego. One firefighter was killed, bringing the death toll to 20 after five days of the fires, which are now the largest in modern California history.
While there was progress in taming some of the 10 fires that have engulfed a broad arc of the region from Ventura County into Mexico, the blazes in the San Bernardino and Cleveland national forests continued to bedevil an exhausted army of firefighters.
Still, about 350 houses were destroyed on the east side of Arrowhead, and strong winds created dangerous conditions Wednesday night that forced the evacuation of many firefighters.
Erratic wind gusts, some as high as 70 mph, sent flames in unexpected directions, not only frustrating efforts to douse them but sometimes engulfing and endangering fire crews. By late evening, strong winds were blowing the fire away from Arrowhead -- but toward another popular destination, Big Bear Lake.
Said Tricia Abbas, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in the San Bernardino National Forest: "I can't decide if I'm on the Titanic, or whether everything is going well and I'm overreacting."
The National Weather Service predicted continued gusty winds for today but said the region was also likely to see higher humidity and might have some rain by the end of the week.
State officials were not yet predicting when the Old fire, now burning near Lake Arrowhead, would be contained, but said the Cedar fire, which attacked Julian, would be contained by the middle of next week.
The battle to save Julian took its human toll when four firefighters were overrun by flames in their firetruck in the nearby hamlet of Wynola. One died and the other three were burned, one critically, authorities said.
Steven L. Rucker, 38, a firefighter and paramedic from the Marin County town of Novato, died. An 11-year veteran, he is survived by a wife and two children. The most severely injured firefighter was identified as Novato Fire Capt. Doug McDonald. He was expected to recover.
"This fire has been nothing short of apocalyptic," said Janet Marshall, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
State and local officials were still counting destroyed homes. The count stood at 2,605, with estimated losses exceeding $2 billion. Officials said 105,000 people had been evacuated from their homes at some point since the fires began.
The Cedar fire, at more than 250,000 acres, is now the largest on record in the state, surpassing the Matilija fire, which burned 220,000 acres of the Los Padres National Forest in Ventura County in 1932 but did not destroy any homes or cause any deaths. Overall, the fires have covered about 675,000 acres, more than twice the size of the city of Los Angeles.
Besides the firefighter killed Wednesday, authorities in San Diego County found the body of a person apparently killed by fire in rural Alpine earlier in the week. Two others were found dead in the vicinity of the Barona Ranch Indian Reservation south of Julian.
To the north, firefighters in Ventura and Los Angeles counties battled fires that ranged over brushland from near the small town of Fillmore to the Stevenson Ranch subdivision near Santa Clarita. Smoke from the fires forced the closure, for part of the day, of Interstate 5, the state's main north-south thoroughfare, near Valencia.
Firefighters in some areas benefited from a change in weather patterns that allowed cooler, moist marine air into the region. A low-pressure system moving into the region is expected to bring winds out of the south and west, which could push smoke away from urban Los Angeles and San Diego but propel fires farther into the mountain communities around Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead, weather officials said.
On the tarmac at San Bernardino International Airport, Gov. Gray Davis urged swift and severe punishment of the two arsonists believed to have set the Old fire in the San Bernardino Mountains. The blaze has caused at least four deaths, he noted.
"I think we should throw the book at them. They not only destroyed property, they destroyed dreams," Davis said before boarding a National Guard helicopter to tour the Lake Arrowhead area.
Arson is suspected in four of the fires plaguing the region, although no arrests have been made. A hunter has been cited for igniting the Cedar fire near San Diego, but he has not been accused of arson.