Plume over Running Springs

Large plume of smoke rises over the business district in Running Springs on Tuesday. (Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times / October 23, 2007)

Exhausted and sometimes discouraged, firefighters struggled for a third day Tuesday to wrest control of more than a dozen wildfires in Southern California that threatened such familiar landmarks as the Mt. Palomar Observatory and the resort communities around Lake Arrowhead.

Fire crews threw everything they had at the fires, but though there were notable successes, the toll of acreage, homes and lives lost continued to rise -- as did the volume of criticism from those who said the region was woefully unprepared for the cataclysm.

By late Tuesday, the blazes had burned 420,424 acres -- about 656 square miles -- and destroyed 1,155 homes, making them nearly as large as the fires in October 2003 that are considered the biggest in California history. Although only one death has been directly attributed to the fires, five others have been linked to them.

"If we had more air resources, we would have been able to control this fire," said a frustrated Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather. "Instead we've been stuck in this initial attack mode on the ground where we hopscotch through neighborhoods as best we can trying to control things."

Prather spoke at a news briefing Tuesday morning less than a mile from what had been an idyllic residential enclave at Modjeska Canyon, near El Toro in eastern Orange County. As he spoke, the canyon was erupting in an inferno that forced firefighters to retreat and destroyed an undetermined number of homes.

Mark Jackson, who had lived in the canyon for 25 years, lost his house when winds shifted and flames jumped across a road.

"When I left it was fully engulfed and there wasn't a fireman in sight," Jackson said.

Another hot spot was Lake Arrowhead and surrounding resort communities, where fire had consumed about 300 homes and was threatening 10,000 more, according to state forestry officials. All of Lake Arrowhead and several surrounding communities were under mandatory evacuation orders late Tuesday.

The fire roared through the mountain community of Fredalba, which by late Tuesday afternoon was an eerie vision of white ash and burning stumps on a carpet of blackened pine needles. Severed power lines dangled along Fredalba Road, and virtually nothing was left of the homes that had surrounded the town's historical marker, which noted that it had been the home of Brookings Lumber Co. between 1898 and 1911.

Amid the devastation were small reminders of what had existed a day earlier: A charred sports car with flames burning where the headlights once were. A bent and twisted basketball hoop. A ghostly metal table with four chairs still in place around it.

In a story that was repeated in many places throughout the region, there simply were not enough firetrucks to chase down the fire that swept from Running Springs into the steep, winding roads of Fredalba on Tuesday morning, said Brian Savage, a division supervisor with the Culver City Fire Department who was among the first to begin battling back the flames.

He added that the clutter left by homeowners around their wooded yards increased the fire's pace.

"You tell people to do clearance and they think it's OK to leave the woodpiles and the sheds. That stuff starts burning and it's right up next to the house," Savage said. "They just don't get it. We can't be at every house. . . . It's frustrating."

Amid the gloom that hung over the region in the form of both smoke and shadowed emotions, there was good news from weather forecasters, who said that the Santa Ana winds had begun to ease and that significant relief should come Friday, when more typical onshore breezes begin to blow in from the Pacific.

"It will be a lot cooler, a lot more humid, and that will really slow down these fires," said Bill Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada-Flintridge.

That news prompted Ron Lake, director of the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services, to declare: "The worst is behind us."

The White House, eager not to repeat its experience in Hurricane Katrina, announced that President Bush would travel to Southern California on Thursday to tour damaged areas and monitor the federal government's response. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and R. David Paulison, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, arrived in California on Tuesday.

"The world is watching how much of . . . the southern part of the state is on fire," said White House press secretary Dana Perino. "The federal government is very concerned, [and] the president is concerned himself.

"There were lessons learned out of Katrina," she said, "and I think we are applying some of those, especially when it comes to early communication between our staff here at the federal level and then the governor's staff."