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Wildfire threatens CA towns


"We have no idea whether their house is safe or not."

—Bill Westphal

A wildfire that had burned 61,636 acres in southern California had driven firefighters to ask residents of Julian to evacuate Friday morning. But by Sunday morning, firefighters saw little fire activity.

"We had some members in the Ranchita area who were affected," said Dennis Davison, Elder of Warner Springs Community Church. "The fire went through there so fast we didn't really expect it."

The blaze -- burning just east of San Diego, near Julian, Borrego Springs, Ranchita and the Los Coyote Indian Reservation -- began July 29 when a National Guard helicopter cut through a power line while looking for marijuana plants. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the blaze was 85% contained Sunday.

Bill Westphal, organist at the St. Barnabus Episcopal Church in Borrego Springs, helped his son and daughter-in-law evacuate from their home in the mountainous town of Ranchita. The small town, 10 miles away from -- and 4,000 feet higher than -- Borrego Springs, was evacuated a week ago.

"We have no idea whether their house is safe or not," he said.

By Sunday morning, the CDF said 37 homes and 116 outbuildings had been destroyed. About 815 structures were still threatened by the fire. Twenty-eight people have suffered minor injuries and so far, the damage has been estimated at $19.9 million dollars.

"We've had other disasters," said Westphal. "But this has been the worst we've ever experienced just because of the sheer acreage involved."

His son, Richard, and daughter-in-law Jennifer, did not have fire insurance since they were renting their home.

"They're still out everything," he said.

Last night, the fire ran downhill toward Borrego Springs.

"So far we're lucky; Ranchita was burning last night. There was a heavy smell of smoke," said Father Simon Lefebvre of St. Richard's Church in Borrego Springs. "This morning, only smoke was coming up there. A lot of people were evacuated. A lot of homes burned."

The roads to Ranchita have been closed off.

"Everybody's blocked from that area," said Davison. "The Ranchita people have just rebuilt their 700 square foot community center and dedicated it just one or two months ago."

Davison said several members of his church live in the inaccessible town.

"We don't have a formal prayer chain," he said. "It's more like you look over the hill and you see fire so you call the people ... and you say 'We'll pray for you,' and you mean it."

In Julian, a few miles southwest of Borrego Springs, an evacuation center has been set up at the high school. Firefighters have taken preventative measures to save the town.

"It looks like a moonscape there," Lefebvre said. "They really burned a lot, but they saved the town."

Evacuees are shaken, but holding on to hope that their homes survived.

"They're talking about who has lost their home and who hasn't, and it changes almost every day," Westphal said. "They hear they lost their home and then the next day they didn't lose their home. There's no hotline or anything you can call to find out anything."

That frustration is hard to deal with, Westphal said.

"It is frustrating, because one day it's there are 20 houses gone," he said. "The next day there's 23 gone, and you know there's more than that."

Lefebvre said the people are coping. He's opened up his rectory for families, but most are staying at the evacuation center in Julian.

In addition to the lack of information, residents are dealing with high levels of heat.

"It's 106 degrees today," Lefebvre. "We're in the desert floor. We just pray that the wind doesn't pick up today. That's the worst enemy for firefighters."

Carried in the wind are embers that could spread to a different area and begin a whole new wildfire. The lack of roads made it difficult for firefighters to access some sections of the fire, and last week's fire fighting efforts have resulted in dangerously low water supplies. The CDF said the potential for a spot fire outside of the containment lines continues to pose a possible threat to Julian, Whispering Pines, Ranchita, Warner Springs, and the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation.

But residents are hopeful.

"We're just waiting," said Lefebvre. "But it looks good."

Related Topics:

'Heartbreaking' CA wildfire ministry

Perfect storm leads to conflagration

Church welcomes vulnerable

More links on Wildfires

More links on Accidents


Related Links:

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection page on this fire

Father Simon Lefebvre's home page

Episcopal Diocese of San Diego home page

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