Lake Arrowhead, USA — As flames ravage surrounding communities, this resorttown high in the San Bernardino Mountains emerged largely unscathed, an islandin a sea of destruction.
The credit for that isolated victory, federal officials say, should go tofirefighting tactics, shifting winds and favorable terrain — and a sometimescontroversial U.S. Forest Service effort to eliminate the tinder that fuelsforest fires.
Since 2002, the Forest Service has removed millions of trees, thinned brush andcut low-hanging branches, creating fuel breaks around almost 80% of thecommunity. Fires don’t spread quickly or easily through such areas, insteadburning lower to the ground and with less intensity.
“The fuel breaks saved Lake Arrowhead,” said Randall Clauson, theForest Service’s division chief for the San Bernardino National Forest andincident commander earlier this week on the two biggest wildfires still burningin the mountains.
He said he believes that, without the breaks, “the fire would have runright through Lake Arrowhead and gone to Highway 18, cutting off the evacuationroute and probably resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives.”
But not everyone was convinced that forest-thinning itself played such a pivotalrole.
“Thinning and cleanup of surface fuels really does help,” said KenLarson, a fire behavior analyst with the Forest Service, stationed at thefire command post in the San Bernardino Mountains. “But there are manyvariables at play. Even that may not save structures in the face of extremewinds and extreme conditions.”
Still, evidence was dramatic in the thinned forest areas. In one cluster of LakeArrowhead neighborhoods protected by fuel breaks, only a few stumps were burningand no trees were lost. Hundreds of surrounding homes were untouched.
Some of the worst-hit areas like Running Springs don’t have fuel breaks. Just20% of Big Bear is protected by breaks, fire officials said.
The Forest Service decided that Lake Arrowhead would be first in line for thefuel breaks because it had suffered worst from the bark beetle infestation anddrought that killed 90% of its pine trees, turning them into enormous firehazards.
“We have been doing it like triage,” Clauson said. “We startedhere so we got the most done here.”
The work is painstaking, expensive and controversial. Clauson has a budget of$17 million a year to create fuel breaks in the forest and has so far completed25,000 acres. The goal is 100,000 acres. He still runs into people who object tocutting trees, suspecting it of being clandestine logging.
To gain public acceptance, Clauson spent a year holding meetings, sometimesattending three a week, where he pushed the idea and urged private landowners tothin their trees.
“This has been the first test of this magnitude and I think it has provenits effectiveness,” he said.
And yet there is only so much the Forest Service can do. Lake Arrowhead didn’tescape unscathed. In Grass Valley, an upscale part of the town about a mile fromLake Arrowhead, more than 100 homes were destroyed. Many had been surrounded bytall trees and lush vegetation left uncleared by the homeowners.
There were scenes of total devastation — lakeside homes reduced to theirfoundations, torched cars and, in one house, only a pair of smudged lawn jockeyssurvived. Power lines littered the ground or hung perilously overhead.
“We can spend $100 million to put fuel breaks around every town up here butif individuals don’t take responsibility for their land I can’t save them,”Clauson said.
Meanwhile, with winds diminishing and humidity rising, firefighters Wednesdaystepped up their offensive against the two major fires in the Lake Arrowheadarea, shifting their emphasis from protecting structures to encircling theblazes.
Helicopters, air tankers, earth-moving equipment and firefighters — freed fromother Southern California fires that had become less threatening — wereredeployed to San Bernardino Mountains communities including Running Springs andGrass Valley.
“We would like the Grass Valley fire contained and out of our hair; we’regoing to put a lasso around it,” said Pat Farrell, an operations managerfor firefighters headquartered at Rim of the World High School along California18 between Lake Arrowhead and Running Springs.
Early Wednesday, fire authorities came under intense criticism from someresidents of Green Valley Lake, about 10miles to the east, who accused them ofabruptly pulling firefighters out of the community Monday night.
By late Wednesday, firefighters had contained 30% of the Grass Valley blaze,where 113 homes have been destroyed and 6,000 remained threatened.
Farrell said the Slide fire, which has scorched 10,800 acres near RunningSprings, was “more complex and moving in different directions.” Hehopes to focus on that fire after subduing the Grass Valley blaze. The toll ofthe Slide fire by late Wednesday was 200 homes and three other structuresdestroyed and 10,000 residences still threatened.
Farrell said firefighters would keep protecting structures, “but the bigfocus today is on perimeter control.”
Gearing up for the assault on the Slide fire, crews rushed Wednesday afternoonto set up a base camp for as many as 3,000 firefighters at the Snow Valley SkiResort about 20 miles east of Lake Arrowhead.
As workers were building sleeping quarters, shower stalls, kitchens andcommunication centers for new arrivals from as far away as Utah and Idaho, theSlide fire raced through insect-ravaged and drought-stricken forests, sending upclouds of smoke so thick that air tankers were unable to attack at times.
The fire spread across a vast swath of mountainous terrain, occasionally makingunexpected runs up side canyons to California 18 where firefighters fought backwith hoes and shovels.
In the meantime, utility crews were roaming the mountains securing power linesand turning off gas mains. The Rim of the World High School became a bustlingstaging grounds for earth movers, fire engines and hand crews streaming in allday from fires elsewhere.