Pine fire puts residents out of Ranchita homes

By Jeff McDonald

August 4, 2002

RANCHITA Residents of this desolate outpost were advised to leave their homes late yesterday as a huge cloud of smoke and fire pushed north of Volcan Mountain, threatening everything in its path.

After several days of measureable success against the nearly week-old Pines fire, offshore winds kicked up about midday yesterday, fanning the northern reaches of the blaze that already has claimed 16 houses and 24 outbuildings.

The estimate from yesterday morning of 55 percent containment was revised downward. By early last night, fire officials said they had 48 percent of the blaze encircled.

It will not be fully controlled for at least a week, they said.

Much of the southern front continued to burn toward Mount Laguna, along Sunrise Highway, although most of that was the result of backfires set to eliminate sources of fuel.

Firefighters last night placed the total acres burned at more than 33,200. They extended the estimate for full containment by 24 hours, to 6 p.m. tomorrow. Still, no more homes were burned, and only a handful of minor injuries were reported.

Winds shifted later yesterday, and the fire crossed San Felipe Road, said spokesman Greg Furey.

"The more we can tie in (yesterday), when we have the wind in our favor, the better off we'll be when the sun comes up," California Department of Forestry spokesman Bill Peters said late in the afternoon.

It was unclear last night how many families actually abandoned their homes in Ranchita. The evacuation advisory affected about 300 people, the CDF said.

Several residents interviewed yesterday said they would continue to watch the fire but wait until the last possible minute before fleeing.

"I'll go down to Borrego if I have to," said James Jeffrey, a sandal maker who was keeping close tabs on the orange fireball as it migrated toward his home at mid-afternoon. "But I think I'm going to be all right."

Nearby, Miguel Cosme said he was thinking about leaving if the fire pushed much closer to where he lives, but he worried where he would sleep and what he would do with the dogs, cats and other animals under his care.

"If you don't know anyone, and you don't have any money, where will we go?" he wondered.

More than 2,000 firefighters from agencies throughout Southern California battled the fire with bulldozers, helicopters, air tankers and hand crews.

The work has been especially difficult because of the rugged terrain, low humidity and the sheer volume of forest and underbrush. Additionally, about 30 percent of the trees in these parts of the backcountry are infected with bark beetles and therefore much quicker to burn.

"It's a constant battle of wind, weather and humidity," said Peters, the CDF spokesman.

In Julian, much of the town was returning to normal yesterday, despite the billowing clouds of smoke and ash looming above the horizon. Tourists strolled along the historic business district, and shopkeepers displayed signs thanking fire crews for their work.

Several campgrounds along state Route 79 remained closed, however, because of the continuing threat. At the Paso Picacho picnic and campground, for example, park officials were warning everyone with reservations not to come.

"We're giving full refunds," a park aide said. "What else can we do?"

Meanwhile, some people were growing angry about how the fire started. A California National Guard crew searching for marijuana plants Monday said it likely started the fire when its helicopter struck a power line.

"They've got equipment to see marijuana plants from 1,000 feet," said Dedi Martin, a cashier at the Lake Cuyamaca Restaurant & Store. "What were they doing flying so low?"

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