The fire has ripped through communities with alarming velocity but many caught up in the flames have shrugged off claims that global warming is to blame
James Webb huddled on the hill with his dog and watched the fire advance, the flames licking through the cherry trees, the oak trees, the peach trees, then swaying just short of his home, the last home left in this part of the valley.
“We’ve been praying all day long, hoping for the best. I believe it’s working because our house is still standing even though everything around it has been burnt,” said the 20-year-old student. “It’s almost like a miracle.”
It was sunset on Tuesday, just 32 hours since the fire began in the Cajon Pass, and as far as the eye could see, desolation. Canyons and ridges, orchards and scrub, trails and houses, all aflame or already ash.
Young Kim, 72, a Christian pastor, hunkered beside Webb. Wearing a mask against the smoke, he spoke not of a miracle but a test of faith, calling the destruction an augury: “We are approaching the end of the world.”
Not exactly. This was a 25,000-acre patch of California going up in smoke, as large patches of California do every summer and autumn, which is why it’s called fire season. Fires are not only inevitable, they can benefit the landscape by purging undergrowth and regenerating ecosystems. They are natural.
But the fire currently ripping through this collection of rural communities in San Bernardino county, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, does not seem normal and certainly not beneficial to humans or nature. In a matter of hours it cut major roads and forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 people in an abrupt, panicked exodus.
The speed astonished seasoned fire fighters. They have seen big, fast, wild conflagrations before, such as the 2013 Rim fire in northern California, but the Blue Cut fire raced through the landscape with alarming velocity. The smoke is visible from Las Vegas, Huntington Beach – and space.
“It hit hard, it hit fast – it hit with an intensity that we haven’t seen before,” said San Bernardino County fire chief Mark Hartwig. “There will be a lot of families that will come home to nothing.”
Mike Wakowski, the incident commander who is managing the 1,600 firefighters on the ground and fleets of air tankers and helicopters, said in 40 years of fighting fires he had never seen a fire behave this way.
Glenn Barley, the San Bernardino unit chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said Blue Cut and other recent blazes were scorching the landscape in unprecedented ways. “It’s to the point where explosive fire growth is the new normal this year, and that’s a challenge for all of us to take on.”
The fire started soon after 10am on Tuesday – the cause is still being investigated – near the Blue Cut trail, giving the fire its name. It crackled across five acres, then 50, then 500, racing towards hamlets and towns along the Cajon Pass. The terrain acted as a funnel, whipping 30mph winds through walls of flame which leaped the I-15, an interstate highway.
Authorities scrambled to warn and evacuate the scattered population, phoning, wailing sirens, hammering on doors. Word that flames had consumed the Summit Inn, a historic diner along Route 66, helped focus minds.
Families grabbed what they could – pets, photo albums, jewelry – and piled into cars and trucks only to find highways cut off, forcing many onto clogged back mountain routes like Sheep Creek Road. They found refuge in cafes, high schools, churches and Red Cross shelters.
By Wednesday morning the fire had grown to cover more than 40 square miles and was “0% contained” – firefight-speak for raging out of control. Yet it emerged that many residents had stayed put.
“This is not the time to mess around,” San Bernardino County fire department battalion chief Mark Peeble said into TV cameras. “If we ask you to leave, you have to leave,” said Wakoski, the incident commander.
A few hours later the Guardian found Lou Asztalos, 53, gathering leaves and hosing shrubs at a camper van site in Lytle Creek, a mountain community on the fire’s south-western flank. Flames danced on a nearby ridge, billowing smoke into a sky buzzing with helicopters and air-tankers.
Asztalos shrugged off the mandatory evacuation order. “I want to check everything here’s OK. I’ve got a hose.” When the power cut, reducing the flow to a trickle, he conceded possibly leaving. “Burning to death, no thanks. There’s a limit to my stupidity.”
The fire has burned through rural communities with alarming velocity not seen before, possibly due to California’s drier winters, warmer springs and hotter summers.
“Climate change is real and it is with us,” Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for natural resources and environment at the US Department of Agriculture, told the Guardian in February. “The whole US Forest Service is shifting to becoming an agency dominated by wildfires. We really are at a tipping point. The current situation is not sustainable.”
This is news to some of those caught up in the Blue Cut fire, many of them political conservatives. “Climate change? A farce. I’ve been here since 1996 and it’s been the same: it gets hot in summer and the place burns,” said Rich Kerr, mayor of Adelanto.
Ryan Gilmore, 21, and Sonya Haffner, 42, “horse people” from Riverside, drove overnight on their own dime to help residents evacuate animals. “This,” said Haffner, indicating the smoke, “is just a hot period. It’ll go back eventually.”
Gilmore agreed. “The world goes through cycles. Global warming is a bunch of crap.” He flicked some ash from his shoulder. “It’s just another excuse for people to whine about something.”
By early Thursday officials reported some progress: the fire was 4% contained.
Original source: The Guardian