While fog, drizzle and cooler temperatures dampened other Southern California wildfires, this mountain resort area east of Los Angeles remained a dangerous hot spot Friday. 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 wildfires.
SEVEN FIRES still burned in four counties. However, the Lake Arrowhead resort area 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 at least 2,800 homes, forced 100,000 to flee 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.
“Mother Nature is finally starting to help us here,” Andrea Tuttle, director of the California Department of Forestry, told NBC’s “Today” show Friday. “We’re hoping that within the week the hot flames will be died down and we can start the mop-up process.”
In the Lake Arrowhead area, 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.”
SAN DIEGO FIRE
In San Diego County, meanwhile, 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 single 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.
InsertArt(2057366)“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.
FEAR OF LOOTERS
Firefighters were warned Thursday to be cautious in dealing with residents who had refused to flee the fire. Frightened by reports of looting, some homeowners have armed themselves.
One resident, alarmed to see people walking near his property with flashlights, waved a .45 in the face of a visitor who turned out to be a firefighter.
“When you’ve got people in rural areas listening to the news hearing about looters, they get nervous,” said Steve Simpson, a safety officer for the Forestry Department.
Sheriff’s deputies arrested four people in Big Bear, two of them in the act, on suspicion of looting, San Bernardino County sheriff’s Sgt. Brooke Wagner said.
Kim Robinson, who lives near San Bernardino, said she saw strangers at some of the evacuated homes. “Homeless people came and tried to make homes in some of the empty places,” she said. “I guess they thought they’d stay.”
COUNTING FINANCIAL COSTS
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 are expected to take a $2 billion toll on the California economy, state officials said.
And as emergency crews and damage assessment teams head out to ravaged areas, they find even more victims as well as destroyed property.
After flying over the region Thursday, Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger said he would take an aerial tour of the fire zones with Davis — the Democrat he ousted in the state’s recent recall election — “to show solidarity.”
Schwarzenegger, a Republican who takes office on Nov. 17 and inherits a state in deep financial trouble, declined to comment on whether the disaster would prompt him to raise taxes.
“We are right now in the middle of the situation so I’m not making any decisions,” he told reporters.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.