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Homes burn in new Southern California fire that sweeps through neighborhood

by Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times |

Fierce winds that whipped up early Thursday sparked new fires across Southern California, including a destructive blaze that tore into neighborhoods in north San Bernardino, consuming homes and forcing residents to evacuate before dawn.

The Hillside fire erupted about 1:40 a.m. above San Bernardino near Highway 18 at Lower Waterman Canyon and took off, quickly burning downhill into neighborhoods as authorities rushed to awaken and evacuate residents. The blaze has consumed 200 acres and has burned six homes, said San Bernardino County Firefighter Chris Prater.

The fast-moving fire prompted mandatory evacuation orders for roughly 1,300 residents of about 500 homes north of 50th Street, west of Highway 18 and east of Mayfield Avenue.

One firefighter was hospitalized for smoke inhalation, but no other injuries were reported.

As police and firefighters were evacuating neighborhoods early Thursday, some residents refused to leave.

“Stay vigilant, please. You don’t see the wind blowing really hard right now where we’re at, but you go up on the hills and it’s very erratic,” said Kathleen Opliger, incident commander for the Fire Department. “The fire has moved so fast ... that if folks don’t evacuate when we ask them to, it’ll be very difficult to get them out when the fire is moving toward homes.”

By late morning firefighters had knocked down active flames burning in the area and had begun to gain control of the blaze. The cause of the fire, which is 1% contained, is under investigation. However, fire officials said they’ve determined there are no power lines in the area where they think it started.

Video footage from the scene taken early Thursday showed waves of embers flying onto residential streets, igniting palm trees and setting homes ablaze. Firefighters sprayed water on two homes burning on Saturn Court, but they appeared to sustain significant damage.

The winds that sweep through San Bernardino are as familiar as the hillsides that are a backdrop for more than a dozen homes along Viento Way, named after the Spanish word for “wind.”

Before dawn, the gusts were so powerful that water sprayed from hoses was instantly blown into a fine mist that was nearly useless against the raging flames.

More than 450 firefighters, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft were working to protect homes and get control of the raging blaze, despite intense winds of 20-40 mph with gusts up to 70 mph, officials said.

Meanwhile, a blaze that broke out about 12:40 a.m. at Rancho Jurupa Park in Jurupa Valley, dubbed the 46 Fire, has burned 300 acres and forced mandatory evacuations. The fire has damaged at least two homes, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The two blazes were among more than two dozen fires that were sparked in the past two days by an extreme Santa Ana wind event, creating dangerous fire conditions that will batter Southern California through late Thursday.

The air will continue to be dry through the day, and the winds, while tapering off, will still be strong, expected to gust between 40 and 60 mph. The fire area in San Bernardino is expecting single-digit humidity levels and sustained winds of 30-40 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

Intense winds projected to last through the day prompted Southern California Edison to shut off power to nearly 73,000 customers in six counties, including San Bernardino near where the Hillside fire is burning. In addition, roughly 850 customers in the fire area have lost power because of the blaze.

The utility is monitoring 223,000 other customers across the state for possible shut-offs later in the day as the winds continue.