UPDATE: Summit fire near Big Bear Lake 50 percent contained; most evacuations lifted

Sandy Benson was kayaking on Big Bear Lake on Sunday when she saw a plume of smoke rising to the south.

She quickly realized that a wildfire had broken out near her house.

“I left my kayak there and rushed back to make sure my home was OK,” Benson said Monday, Aug. 24.

She could see the flames from her driveway. As the gravity of the situation was sinking in, a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy knocked on her door.

“He told us to get out,” said Benson, who has lived in the area for 22 years and knows what to do during a wildfire. “So I threw some important documents and things in my car and got out.”

Benson became one of about 400 people who evacuated their Big Bear-area homes because of the Summit fire.

By Monday afternoon, however, firefighters were making good enough progress that the U.S. Forest Service lifted mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders for all but one street: Knickerbocker Road south of Pennsylvania Avenue.

If all goes well, that evacuation order will be lifted sometime Tuesday, said Forest Service spokeswoman Gerrelaine Alcordo.

Meanwhile, officials with Bear Valley Unified School District said because of the bad air quality, classes will be canceled again Tuesday at all campuses except Fallsvale School in Forest Falls, which is far enough away that the air quality is not affected by the smoke. The district office will be open Tuesday and the main number is 909-866-4631.

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The fire broke out about 12:25 p.m. Sunday near the intersection of two Forest Service roads south of Big Bear Lake, about a mile south of the shore line and a mile west of Snow Summit resort.

By 5:30 p.m, it had charred 100 acres. That figure was unchanged Monday afternoon, as lower temperatures, a lack of wind and higher humidity helped firefighters make progress.

“Today, things seem to be cooling down,” Forest Service spokesman Chon Bribiescas said Monday morning.

Containment lines have been dug around 50 percent of the fire’s perimeter. No structures have been damaged.

Tuesday is expected to be cooler still, with a high of 74 in Big Bear, and there is a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms, according to the National Weather Service. Rain could help firefighters, and the storm isn’t expected to bring wind, which can be troublesome. But there’s always concern that lightning could spark additional fires.

The steepness of the mountain terrain is also a challenge for the ground crews, who are being assisted from the air Monday by four air tankers and four helicopters.

“Some of our biggest concerns are fallen trees, rolling debris, rocks and stump holes,” Bribiescas said.

Fire officials also were concerned with the large amount of dry fuel.

“Because we’re in a four-year drought, all these fuels are very, very receptive to ignition,” Bribiescas said. “Where it started and where it’s been burning has a lot of very heavy timber and very thick brush.”

Though the flames crept uncomfortably close to houses Sunday, not everyone heeded the evacuation orders.

Kailani McDaniel, who lives in the mandatory evacuation zone, said she was didn’t know where she could go that would allow her cat as well.

When it came down to the wire, McDaniel decided to stay in her home.

“If I didn’t have a cat I would have left,” McDaniel said. “But I couldn’t leave it behind, or put it in a traumatizing situation.”

McDaniel said she is new to the area, having moved to Big Bear from Michigan in the past year. She said she has been meaning to create defensible space and finish other projects that would make the home safer. After the Summit fire, she said she won’t put it off any more.

“It was a wake-up call,” she said.

Tom Marschinke lives in an area where a voluntary evacuation was in place, but he was confused by the Forest Service’s evacuation warning and thought he was in the mandatory evacuation zone.

Regardless, he said his “gut feeling” was to stay put.

“I just knew we were going to be OK,” Marschinke said.

Marschinke watched as air tankers and helicopters flew overhead, dumping water and retardant on the fire.

“One of the air tankers was so low that you could see the pilot,” Marschinke said.

Though he admits the spectacle was fun to watch, he couldn’t stop worrying about people’s homes, and his own home. He had prepared a car in case he and his family had to leave in a hurry.

“Thank goodness it happy ending,” Marschinke said.

This story is developing. Check back for updates.

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