JEFFREY KAYE: Firefighters have desperately tried to hold back the advance of wildfires moving from hillsides into the fringes of suburbia. Their efforts have been mixed. One victory came late yesterday just north of Los Angeles. Crews managed to prevent flames from jumping across a freeway into a community on the other side. In fiery foothills 70 miles to the East, men and women battling flames say they've never seen fires like these. Many crews converged on Devore, a small community that was threatened with incineration.
KEN MACKEY, Firefighter: Conditions are far worse than we've ever seen it before. We are experiencing some wind conditions and fire behavior patterns and just flame conditions that are just incredible. There is very little humidity and fuel moisture, which causes the heat to really be unbearable. And on top of that, they've gone basically from about a 20-foot wall of fire to about a 60-foot wall of fire coming at you. So it is pretty hard.
JEFFREY KAYE: The semi-rural town of Devore is nestled in the foothills of the San Bernardino mountains. Just as they have been throughout Southern California, the flames that threatened Devore were driven by the ferocious and erratic Santa Ana winds.
FIREFIGHTER: This is the third day we've been on this fire. We ain't winning because of the wind. If you're from Southern California, you know the Santa Anas come through here every year. This happens ... this could happen potentially every year.
JEFFREY KAYE: Small foothill communities like Devore, scattered throughout California, pose particular problems to fire crews.
JACK QUINN, Firefighter: Narrow roads. There is no water supply. The hydrants are dead. And it's serious, because one engine pulls up on a fire, and the tendency is to stop and put out the fire, but nobody else can get through. Nobody can get out. It's a very dangerous situation.
JEFFREY KAYE: An armada of helitankers was key to extinguishing the fires threatening Devore. They flew sortie after sortie over the flames, dropping 2,000 gallons of water at a time. The residents are grateful. What saved you?
FRED BIRD: The helicopters.
JEFFREY KAYE: What did they do?
FRED BIRD: They put the fire out. If it wasn't for them helicopters, this place would be in trouble.
JEFFREY KAYE: But firefighters have had to remain vigilant. Even in areas where the fires are under control, small flare-ups sparked by hot embers have kept crews busy.
Is this pretty much over and done with, this area right here? Or are you still worried about it?
FIREFIGHTER: There's still a lot to do here. You know, it has to all be out. When they say "out," it has to be cold, wet and out. And that's what needs to happen here.
JEFFREY KAYE: And it's not cold yet? Not by a long shot, I guess.
FIREFIGHTER: There's still a lot of hot spots.
JEFFREY KAYE: And the hot spots cause what, the sparks?
FIREFIGHTER: You're right. You get this wind in a hot spot, and you end with another fire that can be just as big as this. Every fire starts about that big.
JEFFREY KAYE: To prevent the loss of homes, the most vulnerable structures in Devore were each assigned a single engine. So your immediate mission is what?
FIREFIGHTER: To protect the house.
JEFFREY KAYE: You're protecting these houses back here?
ARMANDO MICHALSKI, Firefighter: Right.
JEFFREY KAYE: Or this one house?
ARMANDO MICHALSKI, Firefighter: This one house right here. That is my main goal right here. That's my main mission.
JEFFREY KAYE: Most of the homes in Devore remained unscathed. But just 20 minutes away, in the del Rosa neighborhood of San Bernardino, scores of homes have been reduced to ruins. This morning, James and Susan Stewart and three daughters picked through the debris of a home that they had lived in for more than 30 years.
RESIDENT: Those are all the cans in the pantry.
JEFFREY KAYE: Susan Stewart was an eyewitness to her home's destruction.
SUSAN STEWART: Within five minutes, the house lit up like an explosion had taken place. And the roof caved in. And so, what do you do? What do you think I did? What would you do? I started screaming, sobbing, screaming. And all that came to my mind was, "Oh, my God, we're dying."
JEFFREY KAYE: Although her home has been destroyed, Stewart's optimism remains intact.
SUSAN STEWART: We're going to move on. You have to. And you have to be strong for everybody else. You have to. Somebody has to do it.
JEFFREY KAYE: Like the Stewarts, thousands of people have had to flee their homes, many to find refuge in temporary shelters. At the San Bernardino Airport, an old TWA hangar has been converted into a Red Cross evacuation center. Refugees have arrived here from nearby mountain communities. Cheryl Baeckel and her daughter, Sara, fled from the small town of twin peaks.
CHERYL BAECKEL: I know that it's about half a mile from the house, and...
JEFFREY KAYE: The fire?
CHERYL BAECKEL: They're evacuating the local sheriff's department. I've been listening on the scanner so it's getting closer and closer every ... every minute.
JEFFREY KAYE: The fires have transplanted whole communities to this evacuation center.
CHERYL BAECKEL: A lot of us know each other because we're mountain folk. We're all from the same mountain so it just brings the mountain community that much closer together.
JEFFREY KAYE: As the fires created communities of refugees, they have also spawned sprawling makeshift villages of firefighters, crews who arrived from around California and neighboring states rush to the front lines. Although today temperatures dropped in Southern California, there's little rest for firefighters. As they score victories and save homes, they move on to new fronts in Southern California's fire wars.