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Sheep Fire 30 percent contained

Evacuation orders continue
October 5, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Firefighters made serious headway against a wildfire that threatened homes in Wrightwood Monday.The fire had burned 7,800 acres and was 30 percent contained Monday evening. Mandatory evacuations remained in effect. Seven structures had burned, including at least one home.

Thousands of people were still evacuated Monday night, and they weren't very happy about that. The Wrightwood community of 4,000 remains under evacuation order. Residents who left over the weekend have not been allowed to return.

Firefighters say they still need to keep an eye on the Sheep Fire, only 30 percent contained. Although there are no visible flames, residents say they're fed up.

Lee Foley has lived in Wrightwood for more than 10 years. Like many of his neighbors, he defied mandatory evacuation orders, and Monday night, he was glad he did.

"You look up there, and it looks like a camp fire up on the hill," said Foley. "These people aren't even allowed back."

Had Foley evacuated, he would not be allowed to return home. Authorities say the situation still isn't safe, but Foley says the evacuation order should have been lifted by now.

"It's just important to bring them back because the way we see it -- and we've talked about it with other residents -- is that when you don't bring people back promptly, they're less likely going to leave when they're told next time, because you didn't bring them back right away."

"We still have uncontrolled fire line. That needs to be dealt with," said Brian Grant, spokesman, San Bernardino National Forest.

Grant says the dramatic flames that swept through the community over the weekend are gone, but the danger persists.

"Until the I.C. [Incident Commander] and the I.C.'s team feels comfortable, they're not going to put people back into the community," said Grant.

About 10 miles away, evacuees gathered at a grocery store parking lot waiting for the green light to go back home.

"You're displaced, and you're hoping that when you go back, everything else is looking good, but I hear we got plenty of firefighters and fire trucks in town," said evacuee Larry Kissel.

Weather conditions looked favorable for firefighters Monday night.

Monday afternoon the winds had been picking up, but by Monday night they had calmed down. The temperatures early Monday night were dropping into the low 40s. The good news is that it's obviously easier to fight fires when the weather is as cold as it is. But the cold weather can also freeze water hoses.

Firefighters appeared to be making a stand along the eastern side of Wrightwood.

The fire broke out Saturday in Lytle Creek Canyon and burned toward the edges of Wrightwood in the San Gabriel Mountains.

After cooperating Sunday night, the weather had caused a few problems Monday afternoon.

"The wind has changed, looking at the flag, so that is a concern because earlier it was pushing away from the town," said Jay Hausman, San Bernardino County Fire. "The flag now has completely turned, so that the winds are prevailing into the town."

The wind had died down Monday compared to Sunday, and the temperatures were low enough to freeze the water dripping from fire hoses.

"We deal with broken hose lines all the time. You simply have to stop what you're doing, go back, get some new hoses and reattach, and go back from there," said Ryan Beckers, San Bernardino County Fire Department.

The fire burned the steep and rugged terrain along Lone Pine Canyon on Sunday after it blackened Swarthout Canyon and destroyed three homes on Saturday. Flames were fanned by winds gusting up to 60 mph.

"This area has not burned in over 40 years, so there's still some very dry fuels that can kick back up at any time if anything changes," Beckers said.

A U.S. Forest Service ranger lost his home and some dogs he had rescued.

Dozens of engine strike teams are in place to protect homes on the eastern edge of Wrightwood, but it appears the Sheep Fire is no longer a menace to the mountain community of Wrightwood.

"When (the wind) died down yesterday [Sunday] afternoon, we were able to get out in front and stop the fire. Then the crews started working and mopping up to contain the fire all last night," said Capt. Mark Whaling, L.A. County Fire Department.

Whaling also said the full moon lit the area, helping firefighters work through the night.

"Funny how the weather and different factors both hinder and help the firefighters," he said.

Crews worked into the night cutting a line around the destructive blaze and battling to knock out the hot spots. They were fighting a dramatically different fire fight from 24 hours earlier thanks to a turn in the weather.

The fierce flames forced Wrightwood's 3,500 residents from their homes.

"It was very close. I was sitting in my home, and I heard sirens, and they were really close, so I walked outside, and just seeing a bomb of flames," said Christine Leon, Wrightwood resident.

Fighting fire with fire, crews burned out brush ahead of the flames, cutting off the leading edge of the blaze. From above, crews engaged in an aerial assault of water and fire retardant as they fought to save this popular mountain community.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

For more information on the fire, residents can call the U.S. Forest Service at (909) 383-5688. Residents can also call the San Bernardino County Fire Department at (909) 355-8800. Further real-time information can be found at the San Bernardino County Disaster Information Web site.

Eyewitness News Reporters Melissa MacBride, Rob McMillan and Robert Holguin contributed to this report.

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