BEAUMONT, Calif. (AP) — A growing wildfire chewed through a rugged Southern California mountain range on Thursday, damaging buildings, threatening as many as 600 homes and forcing some 1,500 people to flee.
A thousand firefighters, 13 helicopters and six air tankers battled the flames as they pushed eastward along the San Jacinto Mountains 90 miles east of Los Angeles, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The fire was estimated at 15 ½ square miles early Thursday, growing roughly 6 square miles overnight, with 10 percent containment. “Unfortunately the size of this fire continues to take away any progress that we’re making,” he said.
Fire officials estimated 15 structures burned, but could not say how many of them were houses. A civilian with what was described as body burns was flown to a hospital, he said. Four firefighters suffered unspecified injuries.
Residents told of fast-moving flames that left little time to get out after the fire erupted at midafternoon Wednesday.
Lili Arroyo, 83, said she was rushing to pack belongings when firefighters arrived at her home, which was rebuilt after being destroyed in a 2006 wildfire. She left with only her pet cockatiel, Tootsie, in its cage and a bag of important papers.
“The smoke was so bad you couldn’t see,” she said. “There were embers and ash coming down all over the sky. The smoke was really thick. I was starting not to be able to breathe.”
Evacuation orders covered the an RV resort called the Silent Valley Club, the rural communities of Poppet Flats, Twin Pines, Edna Valley and Vista Grande, portions of the city of Cabazon along Interstate 10 and a camping area known as Black Mountain.
A veteran of many evacuations, Dana Wright, 43, wiped away a tear as she entered a shelter at a Beaumont school and went with her family to watch TV news. She had no idea whether her Poppet Flats home of 11 years had survived. Friends said a nearby home had not.
“This is the closest I’ve ever heard the fire being near our home,” she said.
She and her husband hoped to find a way back up into the mountains. “I just want to look to see if we have a house,” she said.
Most of Southern California’s severe wildfires are associated with Santa Ana winds caused by high pressure over the West that sends a clockwise flow of air rushing down into the region.
This week’s fire, however, was being fanned by a counter-clockwise flow around a low pressure area over northwest California.
Berlant said there was concern that weather conditions could change Thursday and send the flames in a new direction.
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who had planned a meeting Thursday with state and federal fire officials on the California fire season, planned to tour the wildfire area later in the day.
It was the second major wildfire in the San Jacinto Mountains this summer. A blaze that erupted in mid-July spread over 43 square miles on peaks above Palm Springs, burned seven homes and forced 6,000 people out of Idyllwild and neighboring towns.
The latest fire also burned in the footprint of the notorious Esperanza Fire, a 2006, wind-driven inferno that overran a U.S. Forest Service engine crew. All five crew members died. A man was convicted of setting the fire and sentenced to death.
Associated Press writer John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.