Firefighters Gain Against Southern California Wildfires

By Jeremiah Marquez | June 27, 2005

The worst danger from California’s first major wildfires of the season seemed to have subsided Friday, but officials said the blazes should serve as a reminder of what’s to come in the region, where heavy winter rains spawned enormous vegetation growth.

“We’re in for a hot, dangerous year,” California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi said as he toured burned out homes.

Winds that had spread the largest fire eased, allowing firefighters to get the Morongo Valley blaze about 50 percent contained. The 3,022-acre fire began Wednesday and destroyed six homes and one other structure in the San Bernardino County desert community of Morongo Valley. Full containment was expected by 8 a.m. Saturday.

“It’s laid down a lot. It’s just burning in on itself,” said Malinda Feistner, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department-California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

More than 1,000 firefighters were fighting flames and patrolling the edges of the blaze. They had about seven miles of fireline to cut to encircle the fire, Feisner said.

One firefighter suffered a knee injury.

Another fire, about 35 miles away in the San Jacinto area of Riverside County, remained at 2,080 acres and was 60 percent contained. No homes were in the vicinity.

A stiff breeze was blowing the fire back on itself, said Mike Mohler of the Riverside County Fire Department-CDF.

More than 900 firefighters were cutting a fire line and patrolling the hilly canyon country. One firefighter was pulled from the line after twisting a knee and another was removed because of abdominal pain that may have been cramps from heat exhaustion, Mohler said.

In the Mojave Desert community of Morongo Valley, 100 miles east of Los Angeles, those who fled wind-driven flames a day earlier recounted their ordeals.

Kim Haro, 52, said that when she learned of the fire she immediately thought of the nearly 30 horses penned on her 5-acre ranch.

After shuttering her cabinet shop, she rushed home and found a chaotic scene.

Spooked by the flames, her horses were charging across her property and down roads as friends and neighbors tried to round them up.

“It was six, seven feet of flame and you couldn’t see through the smoke,” said Haro.

She and her husband, Dan, took a ring that belonged to his mother, their horse registration papers and a box of pictures as they fled.

By morning, Haro learned that all the horses had survived.

“They’re all OK, except for a few singe marks and burned tails,” she said.

Not so for he goats, which perished inside a pen. Her property was also heavily damaged.

Though flames spared the main house, they gutted a rental cabin, trailer and some stables.

Across the street from the Haros, neighbor Lisa Trowbridge said she realized the danger when she smelled smoke and saw ashes falling from the sky.

She, her four daughters and niece, packed up dogs, cats, chickens, family photos and fled.

“Nothing else mattered at that point,” Trowbridge said.

Her husband, Hap, said he was helping the Haros hose down their property when a juniper tree burst into flames and a fireball exploded toward him.

“I was running, a full-bore run. The flames were racing right behind me,” he said.

He said he watered trees on both properties through the night, all the while making sure he had an escape route.

“The flames, the smoke, the wind – all three things hit you and you know that you’re it. There’s nobody else to save you. It was a very scary feeling. And I don’t scare easily.”

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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