California wildfire rages on
Thousands evacuated as two adjacent fires merge amid windy and tinder-dry conditions
EVACUATION orders remained in place early yesterday for thousands of people after a wildfire in mountains east of Los Angeles exploded in size and forced crews to battle flames in extreme heat.
The Apple Fire in Riverside County consumed more than 80 square kilometres of dry brush and timber, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
As of yesterday morning, it was 5% contained. The cause was under investigation.
Officials allowed flames to run up the side of Mount San Gorgonio, a 3 350m peak, because it wasn’t safe to let crews work in such steep, rugged terrain, said Lisa Cox, a spokesperson for the US Forest Service.
“We don’t want to put firefighters in a dangerous situation,” Cox said.
The blaze began as two adjacent fires, reported on Friday night in Cherry Valley, an unincorporated area about 140km east of downtown Los Angeles.
Flames leapt along brushy ridge tops and came close to homes while firefighters attacked it from the ground and air.
One home and two outbuildings were destroyed, Cal Fire said. No injuries were reported.
Evacuation orders and advisories were issued for about 8 000 people in mountain, canyon and foothill neighbourhoods. Campgrounds and hiking trails were closed in the San Gorgonio Wilderness area of the San Bernardino National Forest.
A huge smoke plume was visible for kilometres around and contributed to poor air quality.
The mercury hit 43ºC on Sunday in nearby Palm Springs.
The National Weather Service said “dangerously hot conditions” were expected to continue because of high pressure over much of southern California.
To the north, the Pond Fire in San Luis Obispo County was 10% contained on Sunday after burning more than six square kilometres of brush east of Santa Margarita. The blaze destroyed two structures, but officials said it was unclear whether they were homes.
Miguel Miller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego, said the pattern of winds strengthening in the late afternoons and evenings would probably persist for the next several days.
“It’s not anything outrageous or very strong, but it’s enough to push the fire around a little bit,” he said.
An evacuation centre for people and animals was opened at Beaumont High School, where the American Red Cross arranged hotel rooms for 32 people from about 10 households on Saturday night, regional disaster officer Debbie Leahy said on Sunday.
The evacuation centre was staffed by volunteers who were trained in Covid-19 safety protocols and outfitted with face coverings, and social distancing was strictly observed, she said.
All who entered had to undergo a brief health screening, and nurses were also conducting daily telephone screenings of the evacuees who were placed in hotel rooms, she said.
“We’re in a Covid environment, and then if we have these wildfires at that, it complicates the situation,” she said.
“But if we just all focus on safety, we’re going to be okay.”
The US Forest Service on Saturday ordered an emergency closure of the San Gorgonio Wilderness, including the Pacific Crest Trail, between the forest boundary and Forest Road 1N01.
Forest Service recreation areas in the Forest Falls area were also closed.
Forest Service recreation staff and volunteers visited trailheads to let hikers and backpackers know that the wilderness area was closed, and on Saturday announcements were also made via helicopter, Cox said.
“They’re not in danger right at this moment, but we pre-emptively want to make sure they have enough time to get out,” she said.
FIREFIGHTERS watch the Apple Fire in Banning, California. | Ringo Chiu | AP