Saturday, October 27, 2007

Journey through the California wastelands

The worst wildfires in the state's history have left 2,000 people homeless for the foreseeable future and experts anxiously looking to the weather

Dan Glaister in the San Bernadino mountains
Saturday October 27, 2007
The Guardian

Lyons Valley as the Harris Fire continues growing.
Lyons Valley as the Harris Fire continues growing. Photograph: David McNew/Getty

In a low-slung hangar in San Bernardino, two giant plasma screens are playing out the final instalments of California's wretched week.

People lie sprawled on green cot beds, scratching themselves, staring open-mouthed at the images: of families trickling home, returning to communities ravaged by one of the worst wildfires in California's history.

There is footage of emotional homeowners returning to their wasted properties, some thanking their lucky stars, others rueing the years of physical memory gone up in smoke. One man weeps over the remains of his Harley; a second picks out charred photographs from the ashes; still another looks at the devastation in his backyard and says: "Thank God no one lost their lives.

But for those in the hangar, there will be no going home any time soon. For these 2,000 or so temporary residents of the quaintly named National Orange Show Events Centre, home for the foreseeable future is here, beneath the low polystyrene ceilings and fluorescent lights of a Red Cross shelter 65 miles east of Los Angeles.

This place, with its lines of portable toilets, its rows of insurance company stalls declaring "We care!", its free internet, its prayer chapel is, you can't help remembering, a long way from Malibu. Here there is no Juicy Couture, no Ralph Lauren, no Nobu. Instead there are ordinary people, turfed out of their homes in the small hours, clad in dungarees. While the celebrities from the Malibu Colony survived their brush with disaster, enduring a couple of nights at the ritziest hotels in the region (the Ritz-Carlton by the ocean had no rooms available for the first half of the week) and were then allowed home, these mountain people have nowhere to go and are unlikely to be allowed back for weeks.

Bill Freer runs his finger across the map in the evacuation centre, tracing the latest outline of the fire. Its uncontained limit is marked with a jagged red edge. "It's like the fire went all around us," says the resident of Arrowbear, in the mountains. "Four years ago was nothing like this. We were out for two weeks then. This is 10 times worse."

Freer's story is typical: woken in the middle of night by smoke, he threw a few things together - picture albums, insurance documents, pets - and jumped in his car.

Sitting on a kerb inside the centre, waiting for information, Robert Schneider gives his version. "We weren't too concerned," he says, "because it would have to burn through the whole town before it got to us. But it moved so quickly. We saw it coming towards the house, the glow in the sky. We could hear it crackling but we didn't see any flames jumping. Then it got so smoky we had to leave. When we left there were little embers in the air."

That was at 4am on Tuesday. Since then he's been trying to find out something about his home.

Around him teenagers in black T-shirts and drainpipes try to perfect the Ollie, the Californian skateboarder's rite of passage. Families chat to each other, laughing and joking as if they are there for a day at the fairground. Off to one side, a small audience forms for some singalong religion. Ladies circulate with cardboard trays offering slices of pizza.

But this isn't a holiday. This is the Californian version of the stiff upper lip, a determined positivity, an acceptance that nature is a freak and that California is its plaything.

The air at the centre is thick; an acrid, cloying thickness that scratches your throat and pinches your sinuses. Travel away from the centre, away from San Bernardino and towards the fires and the air unexpectedly clears.

Ghost town

Strangely, it is a clear autumn day in the mountains. A gaggle of people gather at the blocked entrance to Highway 330, poring over the same fire map pinned up at the centre. The scene could have been taken from any disaster movie set in Los Angeles. The highway is empty. As the road narrows and starts to climb to the mountains, the air worsens. Now and then official vehicles pass, coming down from the fire sites.

Running Springs, 2,000 metres (6,000ft) above sea level, is a ghost town. Ned's Pizza is closed, as is the Old Country coffee shop across the street. Along the 100 metres of downtown, all clapboard houses and faded splendour, there is nothing but the smell of smoke. In San Diego, they have emptied the football stadium that temporarily sheltered 10,000. But in the mountains, the homecoming will have to wait.

Some firefighters are flopped on plastic chairs outside the Bus Stop coffee house. They have the dead-eyed look of the beaten. Their uniforms and the multicoloured array of fire engines parked alongside the road tell the story of the effort to stop the fire: Vernon, Long Beach, Santa Barbara, Georgetown; red fire engines, lime-green fire engines, blue and white.

They point out a piece of paper stuck on a board alongside the ubiquitous fire map: it tells the story of the fire at Green Valley Lake: 11,366 acres burned at a cost of $2.5m (£1.2m). The incident status summary hints at a cause: "High-density residential properties intermixed amongst bug-killed timber," it states.

Further on, close to the hamlet of Arrowbear Lake, Mike Sampson stands next to what looks like an antique fire engine laying out hose along the side of the road.

"We're standing ground with the hoses making sure the fire doesn't jump the road," he says. "A few minutes ago there was a gust of wind and we had to scramble."

How close did it get? He points down the slope to a spot about 7 metres away, where a branch is smouldering.

Further on there are plumes of white smoke. Now there are firefighters stationed every 25 metres along the side of the mountain road, some playing with their mobiles, others leaning on their pickaxes and watching the fire. Behind them are the dark greens and autumnal browns of the forest. Across the road and up the mountain, the black of scorched ground. A charred tree trunk stands, smoke pouring out of its broken end. Steve Seltzner, a battalion chief with the US forest service, stops to brief his troops. "We're actually making some progress," he tells two of them. "A couple more days."

I ask him if he really believes it is close to the end. "This has a lot of potential," he says. "If it gets to Big Bear then we've got a whole lot of new problems. If we contain it, we've got to hold it. No matter how much water we put on them, they're not going out."

When will they go out, I ask, thinking of the people sleeping on the cots in the Orange centre. "These fires are not going to go out until there's snow on the ground," he replies.

Fires in numbers

Flames spread across 800 sq miles (2,072 sq km), fanned by Santa Ana winds gusting at 100mph (161kph)

8,000 firefighters tackled the blaze

500,000 people fled from their homes

10,000 people took shelter in the San Diego football stadium

2,000 buildings were destroyed.

12 people have died

More than 60 people have been injured

Losses are believed to exceed $1bn (£500m) in San Diego county alone

Police are investigating three fires as arson cases

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