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RESIDENTS FLEE RESORT TOWNS AS FIRE BLAZES CLOSER.

Byline: Terri Hardy Daily News Staff Writer

The mountain resort communities of Idyllwild and Pine Cove are empty now, evacuated after the largest fire to burn in the San Jacinto Mountains in 20 years races out of control toward the Riverside County hamlets.

Rescue volunteer Jim Zuberbuhler is one of the few people left in the eerily vacant town, watching ash rain on his deck and helicopters buzz overhead with gut-wrenching regularity.

As a wall of fire moves toward his home and business, Zuberbuhler can't escape the truth.

``We're in a very bad situation,'' he said.

By Tuesday afternoon, the blaze had consumed more than 9,580 acres, and firefighters have very real fears that it may take the town at any time. As the day continued, the entire front of the blaze, a 10-mile wall of fire, roared just west of Idyllwild.

``It's very scary,'' said John Ferguson, a longtime firefighter and spokesman for the California Department of Forestry/Riverside County Fire Department. ``Once it goes over the ridge, well, that area is full of houses.''

The threat of a large fire constantly haunts the residents in the area, a community perched on a mountaintop with stunning views - but only two highway routes of escape.

``It's like Idyllwild and Pine Cove are on top of the stack, and it's all wood underneath them,'' Ferguson said.

Added Joel Vela, a firefighters spokesman, ``They've talked about the `Big One' for years, and now it's finally happened.''

Residents in the town perched on the steep mountain that looms over Palm Springs thought that firefighters were getting the blaze under control Monday afternoon, but late in the day winds fanned the flames.

``All of a sudden the lights on the manzanita trees changed color,'' Zuberbuhler said. ``It was like the town stopped and turned collectively toward the flames. Everyone knew we were in trouble then; that's when people went home and packed their bags.''

Zuberbuhler and other members of the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit began going door to door, telling residents to evacuate. By 6 p.m. almost all of the residents had gone. Roadblocks were set up in the evening to ensure that no one returned home.

The community of about 4,000 residents is as close-knit as it is diverse.

Die-hard outdoor enthusiasts, artists, hippie-types and telecommuting executives live side by side. Residents always run into someone they know at the post office.

World-class mountain climbing, extensive hiking trails and numerous campgrounds draw tourists and swells the area to about 5,000 during the summer.

``It's a great place to live - fresh air, trees, friendly people,'' said Joliene Benavidez, a waitress forced to evacuate. ``It's terrible to think how it all could be wiped out.''

Fire officials believe a target shooter hit a rock in Bee Canyon, sparking the blaze Saturday.

The blaze has been tricky and hard to fight in the rough terrain. It has danced close to, then retreated from the Idyllwild Arts Academy high school and lapped brush 400 feet from homes in Pine Cove before firefighters formed a line and drove it away.

There are more than 1,700 firefighters from the western United States battling the blaze on the ground and in the air, including crews from the Los Angeles County and Los Angeles fire departments.

So far, firefighters have managed to keep the fire from destroying homes and no serious injuries have been reported.

But another blaze had erupted near the Riverside County town of Anza on Monday night, charring 800 acres and stretching resources, Ferguson said.

Elsewhere in the Southland, firefighters battled two fires that have charred nearly 1,800 acres in the San Gabriel Canyon, 10 miles north of Azusa, said U.S. Forest spokeswoman Randi Jorgensen.

Benavidez watched news reports of the battle for Idyllwild with her family at a Red Cross shelter in Palm Desert.

The family left its home Sunday, when flames came within a half-mile of the Idyllwild Arts Academy. Benavidez took time to pack her photos, a microwave oven, and dog ``Geogie.''

``We said a prayer before we left, we knew it might be the last time we saw the house,'' Benavidez said. ``The drive down the hill was very quiet.''

Since then, the family has kept a vigil with other refugees camping out in the gym at Palm Desert High School.

``I wonder when I'm going back to work. I wonder if I'll have a home to go to,'' Benavidez said.

The waiting is just as hard for Zuberbuhler.

He's already sent computers and essential records from his outdoor adventure business down the hill with employees. His personal belongings wait in a few bags by his door. He's included a suit in the items.

``Who knows, I may have to interview for a new job,'' he said.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

PHOTO (color) Phil Strong, left, and David Davis watch as a fire approaches their Idyllwild homes.

Associated Press
COPYRIGHT 1996 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 3, 1996
Words:821
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