It has been nearly one year since the Bluecut Fire blackened 56 square miles and forced 82,000 people to evacuate as it surged toward Hesperia, Oak Hills, Phelan, Pinon Hills, Wrightwood, Devore and Lytle Creek. But West Cajon Valley was hit hardest.
In all, the fire destroyed over 100 homes and 200 non-residential buildings. At the peak of the battle to control the Bluecut Fire, 2,684 personnel were actively involved in the fire fight. Six San Bernardino County firefighters who were assisting with evacuations in Swarthout Canyon were trapped as flames swept over their vehicle; two were transported and treated for injuries. For all the devastation, we can be thankful that no lives were lost and there were no serious injuries.
Bluecut was remarkable in many ways. The fire flared out in multiple directions amid homes scattered among undeveloped wildlands. Unusually dry brush from six years of drought and strong erratic winds fanned the flames one direction, then another. Winds carried embers a mile or more, touching off new fires. Veteran firefighters said throughout their entire careers, they had never seen a blaze like Bluecut.
Recovery from disaster always presents challenges. The Bluecut fire has been especially difficult. The fire did not qualify for federal FEMA assistance for individual homeowners. Tragically, many property owners did not have fire insurance. For them, rebuilding will be a struggle, at best.
During and after the fire, San Bernardino County worked with federal, state and local agencies, nonprofit organizations and hundreds of volunteers to bring relief to victims. The fire served as the first activation of the County’s Mass Care and Shelter Plan. And the County opened a Shelter Operations Compound and a one-stop-shop providing a variety of services for fire victims at the San Bernardino County Fairgrounds in Victorville. We also brought in translators to assist Korean language speakers, many of whom have small ranches in the West Cajon Valley and Phelan.
After the fire, San Bernardino County hosted an open house to provide victims with information and resources. And the Small Business Administration set up a temporary office to accept low-interest homeowner loan applications.
Without a federal disaster declaration and FEMA aid, there was no federal government assistance to help people clear their properties of debris and rebuild. So the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors stepped in with $700,000 to assist property owners with asbestos testing and debris removal.
Dr. Abraham Choi, who runs Hanmi News, a regional Korean-English magazine, has seen both the impact of the fire on the local Korean community as well as the County’s response.
“I think you guys did everything you could do for them,” Dr. Choi said recently. “You did a lot of work for this community. I appreciate your work.”
West Cajon Valley resident Linda Patterson has seen wild fires burn through the area before. But this time, the Bluecut Fire destroyed her home along Highway 138. She is among the few who are rebuilding. When she hit a snag with getting a permit for a temporary power pole, Linda called my office for help. My staff worked out the problem, and Jim Sowers with County Building and Safety took Linda under his wing to clear obstacles so she could start building her new home. When it looked like Linda might have to pay $19,000 in back school taxes, Jim jumped in to pull original permits from 1945 and resolve the matter to Linda’s delight.
“I just know that without them helping me out, it would have been really difficult,” Linda said. “God put the right people in the right place for me. The Lord is taking care of me. I’m going to have a beautiful home.”
While government isn’t perfect, the staff of San Bernardino County worked long and hard on behalf of Bluecut Fire victims and we are dedicated to seeing more success stories like Linda’s.
Robert A. Lovingood is chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors representing the First District. Blue Cut Fire victims needing assistance should visit www.sbcounty.gov/bluecutfire. For tools to prepare for wildfire, visit http://www.sbcfire.org/Programs/ReadySetGoFire.aspx.