Firefighters Scramble Before "Giant" Awakens

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Hundreds of firefighters battling Southern California’s wildfires used a break in the weather Friday to bulldoze buffer zones around mountain communities in case the heat and fierce winds return. “We’ve got a sleeping giant out there,” Forest Service spokeswoman Sue Exline said.

Fog, lower temperatures and lighter winds since Thursday have helped firefighters make progress against fires that have killed 20 people, destroyed more than 3,300 homes and burned nearly 750,000 acres across Southern California over the past week.

Some 15,000 people have been evacuated from Big Bear Lake, a resort town northeast of Los Angeles that’s the only major community still threatened.

The Old Fire had scorched nearly 70,000 acres and moved to within 10 miles of Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains. But its spread had slowed and it was 25 percent contained.

“The fire is just creeping around, not making these big runs that we had seen,” Exline said.

Up to six inches of snow was expected to fall in the mountains by this evening, as unseasonably cold weather moved into the region. Winds gusting to 30 mph were also forecast.

Forecasters, however, said the heat and dry desert winds that whipped the flames into infernos could return early next week, so fire crews raced to cut 30 miles of firebreaks to protect communities around the lake.

“This is an opportunity,” Exline said of the current favorable weather. “We can get in there in the next 48 hours to fight the fire on our own terms, without the forces of the weather.”

Meanwhile, the 275,000-acre Cedar Fire — the largest individual blaze in California history — was 65 percent contained after burning for six days in the mountains northeast of San Diego.

Firefighters said the threat had eased against Julian, a popular weekend getaway known for its vineyards and apple orchards.

“If I was a betting man, which I’m not, I’d say the town is pretty safe — safe from burning but not safe to come back in,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Steven Wood.

In all, seven fires were still burning across four counties. Winds have carried smoke from the fires as far north and east as the Great Plains and Great Lakes regions, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which has used Earth-orbiting satellites to track the plumes.

As the danger seemed to ease, evacuees began clamoring to go home after hearing reports of looting and trespassing.

Three women held signs in San Bernardino, hoping to convince authorities to let them return to Crestline.

“I want to go back now,” Rita Guarneros Sample, 52, said as she held a sign reading, “Stop the Looting. Let us back in our homes.”

Friends told Sample her home had been broken into Wednesday. But when she tried to return to Crestline, she was stopped by police, she said.

San Bernardino County sheriff’s spokesman Chip Patterson denied that looting was a problem in the mountain communities affected by the fire.

“As far as criminal acts going on, with burglary and looting, no it’s not happening,” said Patterson. He said he had no information about Sample’s home.

Other residents of the fire area had stayed behind to watch over their homes.

Kelly Bragdon sat at the bar at the Log Cabin Restaurant Thursday night, sipping a beer and watching television news reports of flames blazing through the forest.

“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.”

Ellen Bechtol, 43, looked to the dark clouds over the mountains and hoped the cooler weather would tame the fire.

Bechtol and her family were evacuated from nearby Running Springs on Sunday and have been living at the evacuation center at the San Bernardino Airport waiting for permission to go home.

“I have no idea about what’s going on up there. The last I heard, there’s still some fire going toward Running Springs,” she said. “You hear so many conflicting stories.”

Standing in line for American Red Cross vouchers, she worried about her home but hadn’t started thinking about the aftermath of the fire.

“To sit here and worry about tomorrow is going to stress me out too much,” she said. “It could be definitely worse, but I believe God will take care of us.”

Officials were deciding how to eventually return refugees to their homes.

“Bringing these people back up can be just as complicated as getting them down,” Big Bear City Fire Department Chief Dana VanLuven said.