BEAUMONT, Calif– A rapidly spreading wildfire chewed through a rugged Southern California mountain range on Thursday, destroying more than two dozen homes, threatening more than 500 other residences and forcing some 1,800 people to flee.
Six people were injured, while more than 1,400 firefighters and nine helicopters battled the flames as they pushed eastward along the San Jacinto Mountains, a desert range 90 miles east of Los Angeles, Cal Fire Riverside Chief John Hawkins said.
A man near the origin of the fire suffered serious burns, Hawkins said. Five firefighters were also injured, including two who suffered heat exhaustion. Officials did not have details to release on the other three.
After surveying badly charred areas, many of which burned amid the fire’s out-of-control growth in the hours after it broke out, officials said 26 homes and one commercial building were destroyed and two other structures were damaged.
Hawkins said the wind-fed fire that sparked at 2:05 p.m. Wednesday is one of the “most rapidly spreading, dangerous fires that I’ve seen” in his 50 years as a firefighter.
The fire was estimated at nearly 22 square miles Thursday, with 20 percent containment, but it was growing, causing concern that the direction could change in the area, which is known as a wind tunnel.
“The conditions at the front right now are very dangerous,” Hawkins said.
Authorities still have not determined what caused the fire.
Evacuation orders were issued in five towns. Flames were marching toward the hardscrabble town of Cabazon, where hundreds scrambled to leave in the pre-dawn hours Thursday as the mountain ridge behind their homes glowed red.
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 counterclockwise flow around a low pressure area over northwest California.
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.