Firefighters battle a huge wildfire in California desert |

Firefighters battle a huge wildfire in California desert

Christina Almeida

YUCCA VALLEY, Calif. (AP) – It was an eerie scene, one that could have been lifted straight from an old Western movie: Dozens of buildings in historic Pioneertown were reduced to piles of twisted rubble and ash by a wildfire that had roared through the desert town.

But, amazingly enough, the buildings that made the town famous, old Western-style saloons and storefronts that once were props for movie cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, were spared by the flames.

When the smoke cleared Wednesday, authorities counted some 30 Pioneertown-area buildings destroyed by the blaze. Not among them, however, were local institutions like the Red Dog Saloon and Pappy & Harriet’s restaurant, a development that gave weary firefighters taking a break near the town’s main street some small measure of satisfaction.

Meanwhile, firefighters continued to battle the blaze, which had moved out of Pioneertown and was heading southwest toward the San Bernardino National Forest. It had grown to 37,000 acres by Wednesday, and officials said if it continues to move west it could place the resort community of Big Bear Lake in jeopardy. A severe bark beetle infestation has killed a large number of trees in that area in recent years, and they would provide any wildfire with substantial fuel.

“If it starts in there it will be almost impossible to stop,” said California Department of Forestry spokeswoman Karen Guillemin.

Some 2,500 firefighters battled the blaze Wednesday in desert heat that reached 108 degrees. The flames were fed by Joshua trees, pinon pines and brush that dot the hills and canyons of the sprawling high desert area 100 miles east of Los Angeles.

“It’s burning vigorously in specific areas,” said Capt. Marc DeRosier of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Eight airtankers and 13 helicopters were used to combat the blaze, which was just 16 percent contained.

Eight firefighters and two civilians have been treated for minor fire injuries, including burns and smoke inhalation.

The fire, ignited during the weekend by lightning, destroyed homes and other buildings, DeRosier said. Damage assessment teams were working on a detailed count.

The fire was being pushed by winds ranging from 5-10 mph with gusts from 25-40 mph, and 800 to 1,000 people remained evacuated Wednesday from Pioneertown and the surrounding towns of Burns Canyon, Rimrock, Gamma Gulch, Flamingo Heights and Little Morongo Canyon.

Firefighters used picks and shovels against hotspots in the Pioneertown area where the fire raged Tuesday. The town dates to the 1940s when such Hollywood cowboys as Rogers, Autry and Russ “Lucky” Haden began establishing it as a film site.

In the Gamma Gulch area a number of dead animals littered a property where a home and barn burned.

In Morongo Valley – where large ranch homes are surrounded by highly combustible brush and trees, residents watched nervously.

“I want to see how bad it is and see if I need to pack up my pictures,” said Tammy Taylor, who drove the family Jeep to the top of the canyon from their nearby home.

Nearby, Barbara Greenbush, 40, stood watch atop her father’s tool shed with a pair of binoculars and a careful eye on a wind sock. In town from Okinawa, Japan, where she lives with her Marine husband, she was visiting her parents.

Greenbush eventually fled the area on the advice of sheriff’s deputies who came knocking on her parents’ door.

“It was very hard to leave and look behind. To see it all. It was completely smoked out,” she said.

An evacuation center was set up at Yucca Valley High School, and horses and other livestock were taken to the town of Landers.

Elsewhere in Southern California, firefighters moved swiftly against a new, 81-acre blaze in the Anza area of Riverside County. About 60 homes were evacuated and the fire was fully contained by dusk.

A 2,200-acre fire in Joshua Tree National Park and a 689-acre blaze north of Lebec in Kern County were fully contained.

A 400-acre fire north of Baker near the California-Nevada line was 5 percent contained.

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