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Evacuated Residents in Limbo as Calif. Fire Burns

Some evacuees left in limbo, wondering if they still had homes to return to while wildfire remains at 26 percent containment

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Although some evacuation orders have been lifted for the Blue Cut Fire, others are staying at evacuation centers such as one set up in Fontana. Annette Arreola reports live for Today in LA on Friday, August 18, 2016. (Published Friday, Aug. 19, 2016)

    Twisted metal gates and rusted mailboxes remained where houses once stood. Flames had turned a lot full of cars, including some vintage models, into a junkyard of hollowed-out shells. Countless trees were scorched or gone.

    Scenes of destruction were everywhere Thursday after a huge wildfire sped through mountains and high desert 60 miles east of Los Angeles so swiftly that it took seasoned firefighters off guard.

    But the day also brought the biggest gains yet against the blaze, with containment jumping to 26 percent, up from just 4 percent when the day began. The fire has burned over 37,000 acres. 

    An aerial flyover revealed significant property loss, but crews were just beginning to comb through the rubble to document the devastation.

    "Most of the areas where there was structural damage, they're still smoldering," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jake Rodriguez said.

    Many residents remained in limbo, unable to go home and wondering whether anything would be left when they can.

    "I want it to be over, but more than anything I just want to know, 'Is my house still there?' " Lisa Gregory said as she sat in a lawn chair under a tree at an evacuation center.

    At its height, more than 34,000 homes and about 82,000 residents were under evacuation warnings.

    While the east side of the fire near the desert was brought partly under control and some evacuees on that side were allowed to return home, the west side's hillsides were still showing heavy flames and thick smoke.

    Wildfires across the country in recent years have grown more ferocious and expensive to fight.

    Within hours, towering, fast-moving flames had ravaged pine forests near the California ski town of Wrightwood — but only half of its more than 4,500 residents had heeded mandatory evacuation orders.

    Instead of heading for safety, many homeowners are staying put and dialing 911 for help, U.S. Forest Service spokesman John Miller said

    Crews, however, aren't always able to reach those who stay behind.

    Some say wildfires have now become a part of living in the wildlands.

    Kim Boyle, who has experienced a half-dozen wildfires during her decade in Wrightwood, said she would evacuate if she saw a fire actually burning in town.

    "But it'd have to be closer for me, and I think that's true for a lot of folks around here because they've been through this so many times," she said.

    The fire 60 miles east of Los Angeles cast an ominous gray-and-orange haze over the picturesque town at an elevation of 6,000 feet that's known for its 1930s cabins.

    The blaze began Tuesday in the Cajon Pass region in hot, gusty conditions and swallowed an undetermined number of homes as it scorched nearly 50 square miles in mountain and desert areas.

    Air tankers bombarded rugged slopes with fire retardant Thursday and a squadron of helicopters dropped load after load of water. On the ground, firefighters and bulldozers worked to protect Wrightwood and other areas high in the San Gabriel Mountains.

    No fire-related deaths have been reported so far in that blaze, but bodies have been found during other fires that prompted mandatory evacuations.

    In June, authorities found the burned remains of a man and woman who were caretakers of property in an area where an evacuation order had been issued near Potrero, about 45 miles east of San Diego.

    San Diego fire Capt. Robert Allen said fire engines have been stuck behind vehicles of people who have waited to the last second to leave.

    "I can understand their feelings but at the same time it creates a hazard," he said. "Not only do we have a fire to fight — now we have to save lives."

    Leaving or staying when fire approaches is often a personal decision — even though California and some other states consider it a criminal offense to ignore mandatory evacuation orders.

    Such offences, however, are rarely prosecuted, according to the American Bar Association.

    Boyle said her family felt an obligation to stay and keep their Wrightwood Market open to support firefighters. She figured it would take 10 minutes to pack up family photos, important documents and clothes when they did decide to leave.

    "Firemen come in and tell us what's going on, and I think that helps us feel better because we get the scoop from them," she said. "I trust they will do what they need to do and have always done for us. There have been a lot of wildfires around here but the town has always been safe."

    Many families that did evacuate will likely return and find their homes are gone.

    Former volunteer firefighter Steve Boyd, 67, stayed behind during a 2003 blaze to protect his home in Lytle Creek from looters. But he decided to evacuate this week.

    "It's just stuff," said Boyd, who joined a stream of vehicles on the only road out of town and headed to a shelter.

    In the Southern California fire, air tankers bombarded rugged slopes with fire retardant, and a squadron of helicopters dropped load after load of water to corral flames. On the ground, firefighters and bulldozers worked to protect the ski town of Wrightwood and other areas high in the San Gabriel Mountains.

    The fire unleashed its initial fury on a semi-rural landscape dotted with small ranches and homes in Cajon Pass and on the edge of the Mojave Desert before climbing the mountains.

    Travel was returning to normal in the pass, a major corridor for trucking, rail and commuter traffic, after Interstate 15 was fully reopened.