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Crews dig in against Calif. wildfires
( 2003-10-30 17:05) (Agencies)

With towering flames bearing down on Southern California mountain towns, firefighters dug in to protect hundreds of homes Thursday while looking for more help from cooler temperatures.

In the San Bernardino Mountains, relentless flames engulfed hundreds of homes Wednesday on a wind-driven march toward the resort towns of Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead. Thousands of people were evacuated.

In San Diego County, the state's largest fire claimed the life of a firefighter when a crew was overcome by flames near Wynola, a town a few miles northwest of Julian in eastern San Diego County. Three other crew members were critically injured.

"It just swept right over them. They probably didn't have time to get out of the way," San Diego County sheriff's Sgt. Conrad Grayson said.

Steve Rucker, a 38-year-old fire engineer from the Novato Fire Protection District near San Francisco, died while battling the Cedar Fire, which has burned more than 250,000 acres and 1,400 homes. It was the first firefighter death since the series of blazes began last week.

He was among the 20 people who have died in the week of wildfires that have devastated Southern California. The fires have destroyed more than 2,600 homes and blackened more than 660,000 acres about 1,030 square miles.

"It's like trying to control chaos," fire Engineer Brian Janey of the Camp Pendleton Fire Department said as he battled the Old Fire, which claimed hundreds of homes in Cedar Glen, just east of Lake Arrowhead.

Firefighters were battling westerly winds from the Pacific Ocean. The cool, moist breezes replaced the hotter and drier Santa Ana wind that had whipped fires into raging infernos over the weekend.

Wind that gusted to 60 mph early Wednesday pushed flames up from the mountain slopes into the dense forest between Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake. The winds kept aircraft grounded in the area, further hindering firefighting efforts.

Crews were looking for help from cooler temperatures predicted for Thursday. Fog and even light rain could follow on Friday.

On Southern California's other major front, about 100 fire engines encircled the historic mining town of Julian in the mountains of eastern San Diego County. Saving the town of 3,500, a popular weekend getaway renowned for its vineyards and apple orchards, was the county's top priority.

But as winds picked up, floating embers sparked spot fires near town and forced some crews to retreat.

South of Julian, about 90 percent of the homes were destroyed in Cuyamaca, a lakeside town of about 160 residents.

San Diego County fire officials have worried for days that the Cedar Fire and the 49,800-acre Paradise Fire would merge into a huge, single blaze that would make it nearly impossible to keep it from reaching Julian.

In the past week, fires burned in a broken arc across Southern California, from Ventura County east to the San Bernardino Mountains and south to eastern San Diego County, scorching a region roughly equivalent in size to the state of Rhode Island. Seven fires were burning in four counties as of early Thursday.

Some were believed set by arsonists; the Cedar Fire was ignited by a lost hunter's signal fire.

A 105,000-acre blaze in the Santa Clarita area about 35 miles north of Los Angeles moved away from neighborhoods and was 40 percent contained.

In all, nearly 12,000 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, a near doubling of the daily estimate just two days ago. The total cost of fighting the fires could reach $200 million, while the blazes take a $2 billion toll on the California economy, state officials said.

On Wednesday, a steady stream of vehicles loaded with furniture, televisions and other household items inched down the mountain from Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead.

Other residents, however, defied the warnings of firefighters and decided to stay to protect their homes.

"I'm afraid, but I've got a lot of faith," Chrisann Maurer said as she watered down her yard and home against a stiff, smoke-filled breeze. "I just think there is enough people praying that we might be safe."

In Colorado, wind-whipped wildfires north and south of Denver on Wednesday forced thousands of families to flee.

A fire in the foothills northwest of Boulder exploded to 4,000 acres, burning an unknown number of structures. A few hours later, a fast-moving fire swept through pine-covered hills in the suburbs of far south Denver, destroying two homes. Evacuations of some 3,000 homes and businesses were ordered. The fire covered 300 acres.

Authorities said they believed both fires were started by power lines downed by high wind.

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