BIG BEAR LAKE, Calif. Chilly temperatures and dense fog Friday helped stall the deadly wildfires that raced across Southern California as a few hardy residents waited nervously to see if flames would claim the last sizable town still threatened.
Some 15,000 people evacuated this resort town in the mountains northeast of Los Angeles the only major community still threatened after a week of fires that have killed 20 people, destroyed more than 2,800 homes and burned nearly 750,000 acres.
"We are cautiously optimistic that we can get a handle on this fire," said Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Mike Carnes, who was out on the fire lines in the mountain community overnight. He said some firefighters near Big Bear Lake were getting their first sleep in 48 hours.
Seven fires burned across four counties as patches of heavy fog moved into the mountains overnight. Friday's high was expected to be a chilly 44 at Big Bear Lake, with a chance of snow by nightfall, but winds could still gust to 31 mph.
Firefighting efforts were both aided and hindered by the fog, which brings needed moisture but also extremely low visibility, prompting worries of injury in thick forests or on dark roads.
"It's a two-edged sword," fire information officer Candace Vialpando said. "You're moving at a slower pace just to see the ground in front of you."
Meanwhile in San Diego County, moist air helped firefighters battling the Cedar Fire near Julian, a popular weekend getaway known for its vineyards and apple orchards.
The fire which at more than 272,000 acres is the largest individual blaze in California history "is finally showing some sign of winding down," San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender said. Authorities hoped they soon could begin allowing more of the thousands of evacuated residents to return to check on their homes.
While thousands also evacuated the area around this resort community high up in the San Bernardino National Forest, a few people stayed behind, dangling garden hoses from roofs as they watched their property.
Kelly Bragdon sat at the bar at the Log Cabin Restaurant Thursday night, sipping a beer and watching television news reports of flames blazing through the forest less than 10 miles away.
"I've got too much to lose to leave here," Bragdon said. "I don't think we're jeopardizing anybody's lives but our own, just trying to save what we've got, everything we've worked for."
On Thursday, tumbleweeds and trash bags tossed across empty roads. Firefighters dug in and cut lines the width of 10 bulldozers through the forest in an effort to head off flames that had burned some 350 homes in Cedar Glen near Lake Arrowhead.
Officials worried that the blaze which at times moved a quarter-mile a minute, by one firefighter's account could sweep over the ridge and engulf the lakeside community of Fawnskin and the rest of the Big Bear Valley.
The blaze advanced onto the campus of a private school in nearby Running Springs overnight, but firefighters protected the building.
Craig Brewster, owner the Robinhood Resort hotel just off Big Bear Lake, stayed in town and opened up his place for firefighters.
"It's a ghost town right now, strange," he said. "It's a weird feeling. We'd typically be getting ready for trick-or-treaters."
Brewster said Halloween night usually brings about 4,500 people to the shop-lined streets of the village off Big Bear Boulevard.
He said he was packed and ready to go if the fire blows into town.
"We could go in five minutes," Brewster said. "Who knows, if the winds change it could come right at us."
At the same time, plans were being considered on how to eventually return refugees to their homes.
"We're in the situation now where we need to start preparing for a return," VanLuven said. "Bringing these people back up can be just as complicated as getting them down."
In San Diego, Fred Daskoski, a fire captain for California Department of Forestry, said firefighters were drawing hope from forecasts of less wind Friday and possible rain Saturday. The Cedar Fire was 42 percent contained late Thursday, up from 30 percent the day before.
"The containment went up, which was a very good sign," Daskoski said Friday. "Until the fire's actually 100 percent contained there's always the possibility of a flare-up at the line."
At 272,318 acres, the Cedar Fire eclipsed the second largest individual blaze in state history. The 1932 Matilaja Fire in Ventura County burned 220,000 acres, state officials said.
In all, nearly 13,000 firefighters and support personnel were fighting what Gov. Gray Davis said may be the worst and costliest disaster California has ever faced.
The state is spending an estimated $9 million a day fighting the wildfires. The total cost of fighting the blazes could reach $200 million, while the blazes take a $2 billion toll on the California economy, state officials said.
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