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Residents Were Sure Firefighters Could Save Their Homes Again

Running Springs firefighter Steve Dvorak rubbed smoke-sore eyes as he watched a crew spray water on a small wooden home they were not going to save. Around him dozens more were in flames or already re

Running Springs firefighter Steve Dvorak rubbed smoke-sore eyes as he watched a crew spray water on a small wooden home they were not going to save. Around him dozens more were in flames or already reduced to smoldering foundations.

"We've been thinking about this for the last five years, but it's still unbelievable. I've never seen anything like it," he said.

From Scripps Ranch in San Diego to Malibu at the northern end of Los Angeles County, and certainly here in the San Bernardino Mountains, it's burned before.


But this week's dangerous combination of serious drought, tree-killing bark beetles, and truck-flipping winds are fueling fires that are stunning even to those well aware of the regional risks.

"We evacuate and evacuate and evacuate," Gary Garrison said. He brushed ash from his truck, loaded with his Harley and two dogs who wagged their tails at his voice.

"We've had to get out four times in the past 10 years," his wife Linda said. The Garrisons fled the flames Monday night and were camping out in a parking lot.

"We knew it could happen," Garrison said.

"But we didn't really think it would," his wife said.


They both squinted up into the smoke, quiet for a moment.

"But then it did," Garrison said. "Our house, it burned down this time."

"We're in shock," said Linda, her long hair a mess, her face ashy with dust and exhaustion.

Her husband touched her arm.

"We're standing here thinking this is everything we've got," he said.

This was the Garrison's first fire loss. There are those who have been through this before, but many more who both knew it could happen but didn't really think it would.

Some evacuees said the 2003 fires, a $2 billion disaster still apparent in charred scars on the surrounding hills actually gave them false hope for this year's fire storm.

"After we saw them save our side of the mountain four years ago we didn't worry that much anymore," said Teresa Alamo, evacuated from her home here this week. Alamo's dearest friend saved eight of her cats tucked safely in the back of her truck. But two were still up there in the burning hills where propane tanks exploded and power lines toppled.

"They must be really scared," she said.

Fifteen miles up the mountains, Kim Wurm, a retired resident of Lake Arrowhead who had refused to evacuate, comforted her dog Rocky. "He's very sad today," she said. "We all are."

Wurm said she stayed to protect her home and the homes of her friends, and to help out in any way she could. She said that in 25 years in "fire country" she had never seen such devastation.

"It's like a bomb went off. It's like shock and awe. It is shock and awe," she said.

Wurm said the public and private effort to thin trees, clear around houses and prepare for what has come has been "heroic."

"Everybody is on top of this as much as God will let them be," she said.

State Sen. Bob Dutton stopped at a Lake Arrowhead school with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger Tuesday as they toured the devastation.

Although fires still burned, Dutton was already thinking about the next step.

"Unfortunately we've been through this drill before," he said. "I want people to start thinking about how they're going to help out after this is over."

The governor's tour was almost four years to the day since he last visited the area for the same reason, surveilling the damage that time from a weeklong fire siege.

"I think we learned from the last tragedy," Schwarzenegger said.

The governor assured him that all of the money and resources he needed would be made available, and that he was pleased to see that lessons had been learned from the 2003 disaster.

But local authorities said there is only so much anyone can do.

"Fire is something that is lived with and tolerated in this part of the country, but these conditions with the winds and the lack of rain and the dead trees are the worst we've ever seen," said San Bernardino National Forest ranger Kurt Winchester. "This is basically unprecedented."