By Douglas W. Motley
A wildfire of yet-to-be-determined origin blackened 145 acres of thick brush and chaparral at the lower end of Waterman Canyon, near Highway 18 and Old Waterman Canyon Road, on Thursday, Oct. 24, one day prior to the 16th anniversary of the 2003 Old Fire, in which 1,000 homes were destroyed.
The blaze, dubbed by arriving firefighters the “Old Water Fire,” broke out just before 2 a.m. after a nearby neighbor reported hearing an explosion or fireworks.
According to U.S. Forest Service Public Information Officer Zach Behrens, the fast-moving blaze elicited an immediate attack from 50 engine companies, three water tenders, five hand crews, one bulldozer, one air attack lead plane and one water-dropping helicopter. At daybreak, additional airtankers and helicopters were brought in to make water drops to quell flames and protect 80 nearby homes that were under a mandatory evacuation order.
No structures were burned and no injuries were reported to any of the 400 firefighters and other first-responders. Old Waterman Canyon Road was closed in both directions, as was Highway 18, from 40th Street in San Bernardino to the Highway 138 junction near Crestline. Additionally, Highway 18 was closed from Highway 138 to Lake Gregory Drive. All closed roads were reopened to the public at 6 p.m.
The blaze, propelled by Santa Ana winds gusting at up to 50 mph, at first pushed flames, embers and thick smoke southeastward toward homes on Arrowhead Road and David Way. According to County Fire Lead Public Information Officer Jimmy Schiller, since there were no structures involved in the blaze, the popping sounds could have come from oily eucalyptus seed pods exploding from the intense heat.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Behrens told The Alpine Mountaineer at an incident command center set up at Wildwood Park northeast of Waterman Ave. and 40th Street.
However, by around 1 p.m., the wind began picking up speed and suddenly intense flames and thick black smoke rose upward near a row of homes on Arrowhead Road. For about five minutes, loud popping sounds akin to that of exploding ammunition were echoing throughout the burn area. Behrens said he didn’t know what the source of the exploding sounds could be, since there were no structures burning at the time.
At that point, an all-out aerial attack was ordered. Within a few short minutes, a series of fixed-wing firefighting aircraft appeared, including a converted, British-made passenger jet and helicopters from the Forest Service’s nearby air tanker base in San Bernardino. They began circling the area, each one swooping down to deposit its load of water on the rising flames.
In addition to several small helicopters dropping large bucketloads of water, there was an Erickson Sky Crane (sometimes referred to as a “flying crane”) that sucked water from a nearby reservoir before rising upward to drop its immense load on the flames.
Asked why the flames advanced northward, uphill toward the mountaintop communities, when the prevailing wind was blowing downward, Behrens explained that flames preheat uphill brush. “Fire travels very quickly uphill,” he said.
When reminded that several wildland fires in recent years had emanated from homeless encampments just north of Wildwood Park, Behrens declined comment. Asked where he thought the ignition point of this fire was located, he responded, “It’s really important to be consistent; there’s no comment until the investigation is completed.”
All evacuation orders were lifted at 8 p.m. on Oct. 24 and a Red Cross evacuation center at San Gorgonio High School was closed. Last Saturday, the fire was declared 55 percent contained.
On Friday, October 24, all evacuation orders were lifted at 8 p.m. and a Red Cross evacuation center at San Gorgonio High School was closed. Also on Friday, incident command was transferred from the U.S. Forest Service to San Bernardino County Fire Department.
On Monday, Schiller said crews had worked throughout the night on Friday mopping up the last remaining embers. “By mid-day Saturday, the fire was declared 100 percent contained.” Noting that the cause of the fire is still under investigation, Schiller added, “When we ask you to leave your home, you really need to go, for your safety and ours.”