It began about 9:15 a.m. on Oct. 25, 2003: a lighted flare tossed into tinder-dry brush in Waterman Canyon that set off the most devastating wildfire in San Bernardino County's history, the Old Fire.

It burned for nine days across the San Bernardino Mountains, fed by arid seasonal winds and hundreds of thousands of dead pine trees attributed to an unprecedented bark beetle infestation.

Those who witnessed the destructive blaze will never forget it.

"Looking out my kitchen window that traces east, it was like a wall of fire; you could just watch it go across the mountain," said Lisa McDermith, a Highland resident of 12 years whose father-in-law, 70-year-old James McDermith, suffered a fatal heart attack while trying to retrieve his trailer during the fire.

In the end, the fire left six people dead, 940 homes destroyed and more than 91,000 acres scorched. The tab: $42 million.

With today being the six-year anniversary of the Old Fire, those who lost homes and loved ones, the many firefighters who battled the blaze, and the investigators who doggedly worked the case are enjoying a sense of closure following Tuesday's indictment of suspect Rickie Lee Fowler, who has spent the last six years in prison on an unrelated burglary conviction.

Fowler, 28, has been charged with five counts of murder and two counts of arson, with special circumstance allegations that make him eligible for the death penalty.

"I'm relieved, and very, very satisfied that we're finally at this point," said sheriff's Sgt. Frank Bell, whose team of homicide investigators took over the investigation in 2005 after Sgt. Bobby Dean retired. Dean's team handled the investigation up to that point.

Those who faced the threat of mandatory evacuations or losing their homes during the fire lived in a constant state of fear.

McDermith remembers the sleepless nights, tossing and turning in her bed, wondering if she and her husband would have to evacuate.

"You don't know what's going to happen, if you're going to be awakened in the middle of the night and told you have to leave. It's just unsettling," McDermith said.

For San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael A. Ramos, the Old Fire is as vivid in his memory today as it was six years ago: the sprawling mountain range lit up like a Jack-O-Lantern, ash raining from the sky and the eye-watering smoke.

"You could smell it at night. It was a reminder to all of us, especially at the peak of the fire, of how dangerous it was," Ramos said.

DAMAGE CONTROL

The fire rapidly spread from Waterman Canyon downhill, first threatening the Arrowhead Springs Resort and then the Del Rosa neighborhood in San Bernardino's north end.

Gusty winds ripped burning fronds from palm trees and carried them like flying torches into homes and dry brush. Burning embers blew into vents and set roofs on fire. Hundreds of homes were destroyed in the Del Rosa area alone.

In the days that followed, about 70,000 people were evacuated from every mountain community. Shelters were set up at San Bernardino International Airport and the National Orange Show Events Center.

"It's the one time we evacuated the entire San Bernardino Mountains," said John Miller, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. "That in itself is very significant."

The mountain hamlet of Cedar Glen was hardest hit by the fire. About 350 homes were destroyed.

More than 4,000 firefighters battled the blaze at its peak and, despite the significant losses, were instrumental in protecting more than $7.5 billion in residential and commercial infrastructure, according to a Forest Service report.

"As much as we lost, they protected as much as well," said Ramos. "Again, our gratitude and thanks go out to them for the work they did, because it could have been much worse."

INTENSIVE

INVESTIGATION

It didn't take long for the phones at sheriff's dispatch and the WE-TIP hotline to start lighting up once the fire started. Hundreds of tips poured in, but only one would prove to be the clincher.

In January 2004, a caller dropped Fowler's name. Investigators also received information about a white Chevrolet Astro van, later recovered in Los Angeles County and believed to be the one seen by witnesses fleeing the crime scene.

"It painted that picture that made Rickie Lee Fowler a viable suspect, and it was through that one tip where we found the van," Bell said.

Early on in the investigation, homicide detectives were provided unlimited resources, including the Sheriff's Department's arson/bomb squad and investigators from county fire, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Forest Service, said Bobby Dean, the retired sheriff's sergeant who initially headed the homicide investigation.

The San Bernardino Police Department freed up 10 of its detectives to assist the gaggle of investigators, Dean said.

"It was excellent work all around from the day it started. And the guys have continued to work it since," Dean said.

Though Fowler remained the primary suspect, county prosecutors felt the case was not strong enough to take to a jury. Tips dried up and the case went dormant, but it never died.

Another suspect, 24-year-old Martin Valdez Jr., was shot and killed on a Muscoy street in February 2006. His likeness was the source of a nationally circulated composite sketch issued by the Sheriff's Department.

Investigators would interview Fowler in prisons in Lancaster and Tehachapi in the years that followed, gathering nuggets of information to help make their case stronger.

"Every time we went up there we got a little more of the truth," Bell said.

As the six-year statute of limitations for filing arson charges neared, Ramos assigned one of his top prosecutors, Victor Stull, to work with sheriff's homicide investigators to bring the case home.

"I`m sure a lot of people over there regretted the day they gave me their cell phone numbers, but they never complained," Stull said.

After extensive follow-up investigation, Stull felt he had the evidence he needed to move forward. He assembled an 18-member criminal grand jury, which reviewed the evidence and filed the seven-count felony indictment against Fowler on Tuesday.

Of the thousands of tips received over the years in the Old Fire case, none proved stronger than that one fateful call in early 2004.

"Nothing ever came close to having the legitimacy and specificity that led them to Rickie Lee Fowler," Stull said.

joe.nelson@inlandnewspapers.com, (909) 386-3874