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Homes burned as winds push California fire into desert floor

Posted at 4:26 PM, Sep 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-19 16:26:35-04

JUNIPER HILLS, Calif. (AP) -- Strong winds pushed a wildfire burning for nearly two weeks in mountains northeast of Los Angeles onto the desert floor and spread it rapidly in several directions, causing it to explode in size and destroy homes, officials said Saturday.

Meanwhile, officials were investigating the death of a firefighter on the lines of another Southern California wildfire that erupted earlier this month from a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device used by a couple to reveal their baby's gender.

The death occurred Thursday in San Bernardino National Forest as crews battled the El Dorado Fire about 75 miles (120 kilometers) east of Los Angeles, the U.S. Forest Service said in a statement.

In northern Los Angeles County, erratic winds pushed the Bobcat Fire onto the Mojave Desert community of Juniper Hills on Friday after churning all the way across the San Gabriel Mountains. The winds and thick smoke over the area grounded water-dropping aircraft most of the day. Meanwhile, crews on the ground shifted from attacking the blaze to protecting homes because they were "outflanked" by the flames, fire spokeswoman Kerry Gillibrand said.

The fire grew by nearly 20,000 acres to 142 square miles (368 square kilometers).

Some residents in Juniper Hills fled as blowing embers sparked spot fires, hitting some homes but sparing others. Bridget Lensing said she feared her family's house was lost after seeing on Twitter that a neighbor's house three doors down went up in flames.

"The past year, I poured my heart and soul into improving this home," Lensing said. "And it could be ripped away so quickly."

It wasn't immediately clear how many homes were burned in the area about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of downtown LA. A crew will assess damages once the area is cleared of danger, said fire spokesman Sky Cornell. No injuries were reported.

He said crews will take advantage of slightly cooler temperatures to make headway on Saturday. However, winds were expected to remain strong with possible gusts of up to 25 mph.

On the south side of the blaze, firefighters continued to protect Mount Wilson, which overlooks greater Los Angeles and has a historic observatory founded more than a century ago and numerous broadcast antennas serving Southern California.

The fire that started Sept. 6 had already doubled in size over the last week. It is 15% contained.

Officials said the fire has been challenging because it is burning in areas that have not burned in decades, and because the firestorms across California have limited resources. There were about 1,660 firefighters on the lines.

The name of the firefighter killed in the nearby El Dorado Fire was being withheld until family members are notified.

"Our deepest sympathies are with the family, friends and fellow firefighters during this time," Forest Service spokesperson Zach Behrens said in the statement.

No other information was released about the firefighter, the agency the firefighter worked for, or the circumstances of the death. The body was escorted down the mountain in a procession of first-responder vehicles.

A statement from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said it was the 26th death involving wildfires besieging the state.

A new blaze sparked by a vehicle that caught fire was growing in wilderness outside Palm Springs.

To the north, a fire burning for nearly a month in Sequoia National Forest roared to life again Friday and prompted evacuation orders for the central California mountain communities of Silver City and Mineral King.

More than 7,900 wildfires have burned more than 5,468 square miles (14,164 square kilometers) in California this year, including many since a mid-August barrage of dry lightning ignited parched vegetation.

The El Dorado Fire has burned more than 34 square miles (89 square kilometers) and was 59% contained, with 10 buildings destroyed and six damaged.

Cal Fire said earlier this month that the El Dorado Fire was ignited Sept. 5 when a couple, their young children and someone there to record video staged the baby gender reveal at El Dorado Ranch Park at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains.

The device was set off in a field and quickly ignited dry grass. The couple frantically tried to use bottled water to extinguish the flames and called 911.

Authorities have not released the identities of the couple, who could face criminal charges and be held liable for the cost of fighting the fire.

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Associated Press writer John Antczak in Los Angeles and Daisy Nguyen in San Francisco contributed to this report.