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The Fire Storm

At 9:16 AM on a blustery Saturday morning the first 9-1-1 call came in. 50 to 60 MPH wind gusts whipped the fire across dry grass and chaparral in Waterman Canyon. Within minutes hundreds of acres were engulfed in flames. By 10 AM authorities were looking for a white van. Three witnesses saw the van's occupants throwing flaming objects out the passenger side window.

The start of the fire in Waterman Canyon around 9:20 AM. Photo taken by Craig C. who was driving up Highway 18 to a soccer game at Rim High School.

The fiery tempest, pushed downhill by the fierce winds, roared through neighborhoods in the Del Rosa section of San Bernardino quickly engulfing 320 homes. James W. McDermith and Charles Cunningham collapsed from apparent heart attacks as the fire surrounded their neighborhood.

"My house is already gone," cried Del Rosa resident Sonia Sanchez as she flames leap through her neighborhood. "The fire moved so fast that all we got out was my family and our cars." 69-year-old Pati Wecker fled with her purse and the clothes on her back with not enough time to find her five cats.

On the mountain, anxious residents watched and waited. The winds soon turned and began driving the fire up the steep Waterman Canyon hillsides toward Crestline and Twin Peaks. The power flickered, and then went out. With Highway 18 impassible, residents and visitors packed up their belongings and left down less-familiar back roads.

Panicked motorist congest roadways the morning of Saturday, October 25, 2003.

By nightfall most residents were evacuating or starting their plans to evacuate. "There's a spot fire along Playground in Crestline," crackled the scanner. Well ahead of the main fire. Arson was suspected in this fire. Witnesses reported seeing a vehicle fleeing the area. It turned out that some residents, who had driven to the popular hang glider launch site to watch the fire in the Canyon below, inadvertently started this secondary fire when their vehicle became stuck in heavy brush. The order was given to evacuate all of Crestline, Valley of Enchantment, Cedarpines Park, and the Crest Forest areas. Voluntary evacuations were ordered for Lake Arrowhead, Blue Jay, Running Springs, Green Valley and Cedar Glen.

Flashlights darted around the interiors of homes. Outside, a sea of cars snaked down Highway 138 from Crestline toward Lake Silverwood. From the lakeside the deadly front line of the nearby Grand Prix fire could be seen pouring over the hillside like lava toward Lytle Creek and Devore. The situation only worsened by Sunday, October 26. "Everything below Big Bear is being evacuated," said San Bernardino Sheriff's Lieutenant Mario Quesada. The fire had simply jumped too many roads. Officials were worried about residents becoming trapped.

Thick black smoke chokes most of the San Bernardino area on Sunday, October 26. Photo by Ward Wells.

The Waiting

The waiting began as anxious evacuees tried to find out about their homes and neighbors. "...trying to find out anymore info on Venus/Jupiter Lane- Update said houses were damaged. We live on Venus near the water tower and are feeling hopeless after reading the updates," wrote Kari, the evening of Sunday, October 26, 2003 on the RIMOFTHEWORLD.net message boards.

"I heard on a scanner that the fire is burning at Crest Forest drive near Waters....so sorry," wrote another anonymous poster.

Reports from the media vacillated between dread and hope as many residents felt like they lost their homes over and over again. "Reports on RIMOFTHEWORLD.net seem to conflict with the news," wrote Brandon Ryder. "It appears that fire is south (below) Highway 18 and that fire crews are holding it back. As of 5 PM, I saw an aerial shot of the Lake Gregory area. It did seem to progress down Crest Forest Drive but I did not see many flames. ABC coverage showed crews [in] Top Town just waiting for a fire to come so I would assume there is no fire [burning] in Crestline area at the moment."

Firefighters fight the fire along Highway 189 in Twin Peaks on Tuesday morning. Photo by John Hubbs.

By Tuesday, October 28, evacuees were beginning realize the scope of the disaster as the fire marched eastward and continually challenged firefighters along Highway 18. "They reported the fire at Strawberry Lookout headed down backside," posted Tom shortly after midnight.

"Fire burning along North side of 18 in Rim Forest almost to Pine Ave," wrote Daniel LaFuze who was monitoring the fire scanners. "The first 2 strike teams are exhausted and gonna try to get some rest so they can be more helpful once the sun comes up. I don't hear of any other problems up closer to Twin Peaks as of yet. The area around Daley Canyon may have also died down a bit as they're not talking about it any more. I did hear of a hot spot near Bayliss Park again, but it's right near the road and in an area that burned already, so shouldn''t be too bad."

"Channel 11 just showed (about 6:42 AM) the [Rim] High School lot being evacuated of news crews, etc," wrote Denny Hyett, Tuesday morning. "Looks like some big flames below hwy 18 near there. Lets hope that the air drops start soon. Haven't been really listening closely to the scanner. At least they held it pretty good for the last 4 hours or so. It does look pretty active and flames moving slightly east. Don't see any indication that the fire has left the Rimforest area by Hwy 18. Pray for the planes!"

The fire pushes through the forest between Arrowhead Highlands and Rimforest. Photo by John Hubbs.

"I also saw the NeuArt Sign and houses on either side of that sign were engulfed in flames."

The fire began claiming homes in the Rimforest area. "I just saw an aerial shot that showed smoke all along the area between Rim High and Strawberry peak," wrote John Patrick. "I also saw the NeuArt Sign and houses on either side of that sign were engulfed in flames. I hope you're ok Dawn. It didn't show your house, just the neighbors so far. However the smoke hasn't moved past Rim High, or Strawberry Peak. The lookout tower on Strawberry Peak was still standing. The trees to the east of Strawberry Peak, and south of Bear Springs Road were burned and smoldering. a forest of burned out trees."

Wednesday's Toll

The winds picked up Wednesday, and pushed the 18 mile long fire line into the mountain communities. Flames poured over the Rim and devastated much of Cedar Glen. "Channel 9 currently showing pic's of Nob Hill... fire burning a home on screen. They also said the fire has just entered Lake Arrowhead...reported that a fireman told them that there is too much smoke to give more details. This reporter was on Hwy 18 near the entrance to Nob Hill..." wrote Laurie Schonert.

Reports soon came in of one home lost, nine homes lost, then dozens of homes. Mountain Community Hospital was evacuated of all remaining personnel.

"Let me state what I have gleaned," said Mike M at 5:30 PM. "There are 150+ homes lost on Hook Creek so far. It has not crested to the top at the Malt Shop yet, but is expected to at which point the Fire Department [says] they will pull back to the Cedar Glen Post Office. Spot fires are starting southwest of [Papoose Lake]. Looks like the Emerald area. It is traveling West toward Cedar Glen proper and into the direction of Arrowhead." By 5:40 PM, the news had worsened. "Hook Creek Rd. Cedar Glen now estimated at 250 homes lost. Anything East of Western at the crest near the malt shop is likely lost."

Turning the Corner

When the news crews re-entered the area, scenes of devastation greeted them on a moonlike landscape. Tales of heroism immerged as John Lucas saved several of the Wysocki homes with $70,000 worth of firefighting equipment and nerves of steel. Channel 9 News crews also found a German Shepherd wandering the ashes. Within moments, with joyful tears, the dogs owner called up the station. The dog's name, aptly enough, was Cinder. She had fled during the evacuation and delivered three puppies. The puppies were named Charcoal, Ashes and Phoenix.

Evacuees gathered at the evacuation center in San Bernardino to listen to news conferences and wait in line to pick up mail. Plans were even made to hold an evacuee picnic and off-mountain church services were scheduled.

By Halloween, reports of individual homes lost were being published by Ranger Al and others who managed to gain access to the area. "544 ACACIA Burned... BOY SCOUT CAMP Burned... BDGE One House Standing... CEDAR GLEN INN Safe... CEDAR GLEN POST OFFICE Safe... CEDAR GLEN VILLIAGE Safe... EAST OF POPOOSE Burned... 29617 HOOK CREEK ROAD Burned ... 29924 HOOK CREEK ROAD Possibly Burned... 30073 HOOK CREEK ROAD Conflicting/Burned... 283 JASPER Possibly Burned... JASPER Possibly Burned..." posted CGA.

Rain and snow began falling in the mountains allowing firefighters to get the upperhand on the massive fire. On November 1, 2003, the mandatory evacuation had been reduced to a voluntary evacuation for much of the unaffected areas and Waterman Canyon. On November 2, the evacuation for most of Crestline, Lake Gregory, Valley of Enchantment, and Cedarpines Park was reduced as well. By November 7, all evacuation orders were lifted.

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