Southern California wildfire prompts evacuation order for thousands as Santa Ana winds fuel flames

AGUANGA, Calif. (AP) — Hundreds of firefighters aided by aircraft on Tuesday battled a wind-driven wildfire that damaged or destroyed at least nine buildings in rural Southern California and prompted authorities to order 4,000 residents to evacuate.

Gusty Santa Ana winds spread the Highland Fire over about 4 square miles (10 square kilometers) of brushy hills near the Riverside County hamlet of Aguanga after it broke out Monday afternoon.

Three structures were confirmed destroyed and six others were damaged, Riverside County Fire Department spokesperson Jeff LaRusso said.

By nighttime the fire was 10% contained but still threatened nearly 2,400 homes and other buildings, according to an update from fire authorities.

One firefighter was injured, but the statement didn't provide details.

Luis Quinonez was away when a house he owned burned to the ground. He was trying to keep his spirits up.

“It's not for sale anymore,” Quinonez, covered in soot, joked in an interview.

He also lost 13 vehicles he had collected to sell. A second house he owns across the street was untouched. No one was hurt, he added, and his dogs, cats, chickens and roosters were also OK.

The terrain, streaked with pink from aerial retardant drops, was marked with signs of other firefighting successes. Scorched earth stopped at a white picket fence around a large horse stable. A nearby olive oil company also survived.

While the fire showed only minimal growth Tuesday, winds were forecast to remain in the area through Thursday evening and could spread the blaze west and southwest, the Riverside County Fire Department said.

“Extremely steep and rugged terrain remains a challenge,” the update said. “Current and expected weather of steady winds with low relative humidity may increase the risk of erratic fire behavior.”

The cause of the blaze was under investigation.

The Highland Fire erupted as Southern California experienced its first significant Santa Ana wind conditions of the season. The witheringly dry winds typically form as air flows from the the interior of the West and descends to the Pacific Coast during the fall, often stoking destructive wildfires.

The fire was reported at about 12:45 p.m. Monday, and about 1,300 homes and 4,000 residents were put under evacuation orders. The region is sparsely populated, but there are horse ranches and a large mobile home site.

Air tankers, helicopters and bulldozers were called in to fight the fire, one of the few large and active blazes to have erupted so far in California this year.

Power utility Southern California Edison was considering cutting electricity to nearly 55,000 customers in four counties to prevent fires in the event wind damages equipment. Only a few dozen customers were affected by public safety power shutoffs as of Tuesday night.


Associated Press writer John Antczak contributed from Los Angeles.

Marcio Sanchez, The Associated Press