BY RICHARD BROOKS AND ALI TADAYON / STAFF WRITERS
Southern California's first major blaze of the season marked its first week of life by growing to nearly 33 square miles and seemed certain to burn for at least another week or two in the San Bernardino Mountains.
"We're far from done," fire spokesman Bernie Pineda said late Wednesday .
A midday wind shift caused the Lake fire to flare up and change direction — from east toward the desert to northwest toward Onyx Peak — prompting the evacuation of about 360 youths and YMCA staffers at Camp Oakes, as well as two tiny mountain communities.
Two teenage campers were treated for smoke inhalation.
"A couple of them suffer from asthma," said San Bernardino County sheriff's spokeswoman Tiffani Swantek. "And it's reported that two of them have labored breathing."
The facility is one of at least two organizational camps below Onyx Summit, southeast of Big Bear Lake, but the only camp slated for evacuation.
A nearby science camp – Blue Skies – is unoccupied, and all U.S. Forest Service campgrounds in the area were evacuated days ago, Swantek said.
The fire began at 3:52 p.m. June 17 behind Camp de Benneville Pines along Jenks Lake Road in the Barton Flats area of the San Gorgonio Wilderness. The cause is under investigation.
By nightfall Wednesday, the flames had blackened 20,875 acres, all of its south of the 38 and most of it east and south of the starting point.
No buildings have burned, though fire engine crews have been assigned to protect homes along Rainbow Lane near Camp Oakes and in the community of Lake Williams, said Pineda.
Late Wednesday, evacuations were ordered for the tiny communities of Burns Canyon and Rim Rock. A voluntary evacuation was called for Pioneertown.
Among the biggest challenges Wednesday:
An unidentified drone aircraft forced officials to ground all firefighting planes shortly before 6 p.m. to avoid any danger of a collision with the intruder;
Forecasts call for the possibility of dry lightning on Saturday, raising the specter of new fires in the tinder-dry mountains.
EVACUATING CAMP OAKES
Camp Oakes was evacuated because of the large number of occupants, rather than any imminent threat, said fire spokesman Lee Beyer.
"It's not (a quick process) like jumping in the car," he said.
The effort to empty Camp Oakes began at 1:25 p.m. About an hour later, deputies and school buses arrived to transport them to Big Bear Community Church, 40946 Big Bear Blvd., in Big Bear Lake.
The evacuation involved mostly of children between the ages 7 to 17 from the Palm Springs area and went smoothly, said Camp Oakes Manager Josh Fisher.
Not only had the group prepared for an evacuation, Fisher said the campers were all in their cabins for "rest time," so counselors didn't have to go looking for anyone.
The evacuees, which had been at Camp Oakes since Saturday and were scheduled to stay for a week, planned to spend the rest of the day at the church. After dinner, the campers were going to be brought back to the YMCA's Palm Springs facility, where their parents could pick them up.
Though the children seemed calm, Fisher admitted he was worried about his own home. He and two other people permanently live at the camp.
"You have to be a little worried," Fisher said. "But I have faith in the fire department. They said smoke damage is possible, but they don't think flames will reach the camp."
Fisher said he had previously gathered some family heirlooms and other belongings in preparation for an evacuation, and was able to get it all out of his home.
Though the fire was making its way toward Lake Williams, residents there were not being evacuated.
Lake Williams resident Jesse Rodriguez said he wasn't too worried that the fire might reach his area.
"It still has a long way to go," Rodriguez said.
In recent days, the speed of the fire's spread had slackened. But it makes periodic sprints, including the one that prompted Wednesday's evacuations.
The fire's most obvious characteristic Wednesday was the larger and denser plumes of smoke billowing over the San Gorgonio Wilderness and into adjacent desert areas."As the fire burned through, we still have pockets of unburned fuel," said Forest Service spokeswoman Shawna Hartman.
The blaze on Wednesday was moving into deep canyons that were inaccessible by foot, Forest Service spokesman Matt Corelli said. And then, the fire made a run toward Camp Oakes.
Such troubles prompted the use of two of the nation's largest air tankers – converted DC-10 jumbo jets – to help battle the flames, along with three other large air tankers and several water-dropping helicopters.
As night fell, the fire lines bordered nearly all of the blaze's northern perimeter.
Some hand crews had been assigned to press 200 feet into the burned area beyond the northern perimeter to turn over stumps and logs to extinguish the fire, said Pineda, one of the fire spokesmen. Those crews were using infrared cameras to pinpoint hot spots, he said.
But the bulk of the crews were assigned to dig fires lines on both the west and east ends of the fire – especially on the active eastern flank.
"We're just trying to keep that (fire) in a box, east of Hwy. 38 and south of forest service road 3N03," Pineda emphasized.
Perhaps the most challenging work is on the fire's south side, where crews are digging fire lines deep in the wilderness."They'll live out there," said Pineda. "They're out there for days at a time, then rotate back" for a rest.
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