In the News – 2006

I was remembering the fires back in 2006 and recalled that a reporter from the Union Tribune in San Diego had interviewed me about the fires and the situation in Big Bear. We we discussing the fire a meeting with a representative of the Big Bear Fire Department and I told him he could get a good view of the bark beetle damage from my place. I did not know it then but he included me in his story. Here’s the story he wrote:

In Big Bear: ‘How many times can we dodge the bullet?’

By Alex Roth

July 15, 2006

BIG BEAR – Maybe the massive Sawtooth fire will overrun this popular resort village three hours north of San Diego, and maybe it won’t.

But this much is indisputable: The forest surrounding Big Bear Lake is choked with so many dead trees that a catastrophic wildfire is a very real possibility. Perhaps not today or this week, but eventually.

“How many times can we dodge the bullet?” said John Reisman, 43, an inventor who has lived in Big Bear for 24 years.

Yesterday, as the Sawtooth and the smaller Millard fires merged 10 miles to the southeast, Big Bear residents continued, albeit somewhat nervously, to go about their daily lives.

The Old Miners’ Days Chili Cook-Off was still scheduled for today, as was the Music in the Mountain Summer Concert Series. The owner of the Marina Resort spent yesterday assuring a frantic bride-to-be that she wouldn’t have to cancel her wedding.

Roughly 23,000 people live in this mountain community full-time, and the population can more than double on a summer weekend, when Southern Californians flock here to water-ski, kayak, windsurf and bike the scenic ridge trails.

When it comes to wildfires, residents know the drill. Just three years ago, as the Paradise and Cedar fires were burning in San Diego County, two other fires merged near Big Bear Lake, and the entire village was evacuated. The Old fire and the Grand Prix fire were contained before they could damage any property in town.

Although the town itself hasn’t burned in recent memory, many people here worry that the odds of an apocalyptic blaze continue to climb.

In the past five years, beetles have done enormous damage to the Douglas firs and piñon, Jeffrey and sugar pines that grow in the San Bernardino National Forest, which surrounds the town. Anywhere from 10 percent to 40 percent of the trees are dead, said Bob Sommer, a vegetation specialist with the U.S. Forest Service.

On Wednesday night, some 700 people showed up at the Big Bear Convention Center on the edge of town to hear fire officials outline evacuation plans and give an update on the blaze. Many had already boxed up their valuables, ready to flee west on state Route 18 should the fire hop over the mountain ridge to the southeast.

One man in the crowd, an official at a local summer camp, wanted to know what to do with his campers.

“I have a lot of parents watching the news on all the stations who are pretty freaked out right now,” he told the gathered fire officials.

There is, to some degree, a division of opinion among the locals about whether to encourage tourism in times like these. Many worry that the influx of vacationers will simply make things more difficult in the event of an evacuation.

Erica Gomma, 47, who works in a grocery store and admits to “a lot of tension and anxiety” about the looming blaze, said village officials should do everything in their power to keep tourists away until the fire is under control.

“The congestion is already bad enough,” she said.

But there are those in the business community who think all the media coverage is hurting their bottom line. Yesterday morning – when the sky was blue, and smoke from the blaze all but invisible in the central business district – resort owner Scott Malone didn’t see what the fuss was all about.

“I’ve gotten 200 calls in the last 24 hours from people wanting to cancel their reservations,” said Malone, who owns the Marina Resort. “I don’t smell smoke in the air, I got a blue sky above me, I got a blue lake ahead of me. It’s gotten out of hand.”

By late afternoon, a huge brown cloud of smoke had spread over the entire valley. But still, people continued fishing off the docks and launching their sailboats on Big Bear Lake. Fire officials said the wind was blowing in the opposite direction and, for the time being at least, the town was safe.

Reisman, the inventor, was cautiously optimistic that the village would be spared. Every few hours, he’d go on the Internet to check wind conditions.

He was hardly relaxed, however. Standing on the porch of his cabin overlooking the Big Bear ski lodge, he pointed at swaths of dead trees on a mountain ridge in the distance.

“The last four or five years they’ve started dying real fast,” he said.

Making matters more combustible, Reisman lives in a log cabin built by hand. Asked what type of wood his house is made of, he replied, “Flammable.”


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