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Firefighters Hold Line against Fierce Southern California Wildfire

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Firefighters made progress on Thursday against a wildfire driven by Santa Ana winds that has charred more than 1,000 acres of drought-parched scrubland east of Los Angeles, threatening a wealthy community in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains.

The fire, which erupted on Wednesday morning at the Etiwanda Preserve north of the community of Rancho Cucamonga about 65 miles east of Los Angeles, was only about 10 percent contained as of Thursday morning.

But fire officials said the flames, which on Wednesday threatened homes on the outskirts of Rancho Cucamonga, forcing hundreds of people to evacuate, had been turned away from the community and were now burning mostly in the foothills.

"The fire got well-tested last night with wind and everything and they held it," fire spokesman Brian Grant said of crews who dug fire lines between the flames and the community without the aid of air support after planes and helicopters were grounded by high winds.

"We're not out of the woods yet. We've got 10 percent and that's great, our crews are doing a great job. But it's still a very large threat out there, you're looking at a drought situation and high winds," Grant said.

He said two firefighters had suffered minor eye injuries from blowing debris, but no structures had been lost or damaged in the so-called Etiwanda Fire.

The fast-moving blaze, which sent smoke drifting across much of Southern California all the way to the Pacific Ocean, comes amid a dangerous combination of unseasonably hot weather and fierce Santa Ana winds that put much of Southern California's brushy hillsides at risk.

The Santa Ana winds, which blow hot air from California's desert through passes and canyons, were gusting at up to 80 miles per hour at times, pushing the flames across scrub and forest land left bone-dry by the state's severe, multi-year drought.

Mandatory evacuation orders were lifted for those neighborhoods that had been in the path of the blaze, although some voluntary evacuations remained in effect, Grant said, and evacuation centers remained open in Rancho Cucamonga for both people and animals.

More than 700 firefighters have battled the flames, burning in conditions that the state does not usually see until the end of a long, dry summer.

It was the second major wildfire this year and comes just days after Governor Jerry Brown ordered emergency response agencies to streamline their processes for adding staff and purchasing equipment to fight fires in a season already well under way.

California officials have kept staffing levels for wildland firefighters at elevated levels since last year because the state is in the midst of its worst drought in decades.

 

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and David Gregorio)

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