Fires Erupt in Southern Calif.

By Rene Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 5, 2004

LOS ANGELES, May 4 -- A rash of wildfires spread across the bone-dry backcountry of Southern California on Tuesday, forcing thousands of residents to flee their homes and signaling the start of what will likely be another long, dangerous summer of blazes.

Authorities said the wildfire season is beginning a few weeks earlier than usual in the region, which is in a severe drought and is still recovering from a massive firestorm last fall that killed 20 people and destroyed more than 2,700 homes.

Seven wildfires erupted Monday in four Southern California counties that were baking in record heat. In some areas, temperatures topped 100 degrees. Firefighters gained the upper hand on several of the fires early Tuesday, but two blazes in Riverside County, southeast of Los Angeles, exploded in size overnight and were threatening homes and major power transmission lines.

About 4,000 people in Riverside County were ordered to leave their residences, or voluntarily left in haste after midnight as one of the wildfires suddenly grew threefold. The two most serious fires, which are barely contained, are now burning across nearly 15,000 acres and have destroyed 14 structures, including a few homes. Eight injuries have been reported, none serious. More than 1,500 firefighters are on the front lines of the blazes.

Wildfires flourish in windy, hot and dry weather -- and the West is bracing for months of it. Most western states are reeling from years of drought. Reservoirs are low, and the melting mountain snowfall in much of the region is meager. Authorities say the climate could create an intense wildfire season this summer.

"We've experienced some real warm weather real early," said Rich Green, an assistant deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "Things are really drying out quickly. There's going to be plenty of dead fuel in forests available to burn real soon."

For months, firefighters and foresters across the West have been pleading with residents living on the edge of wilderness to clear dry brush from their land. In Southern California, officials also are rushing to remove thousands of trees in the San Bernardino Mountains that are dead or dying from a beetle infestation -- and that would be ideal kindling for a wildfire. San Diego County is scrambling to resolve the communications breakdowns and equipment shortages that prompted widespread public criticism of its response to last fall's fires.

"We're taking as many precautions as we can," Green said. "The incidents from last year's fires are still very fresh in people's minds. Now is the time to take action."

The catastrophic fires that engulfed Southern California last fall were the most destructive in the state's history. They scorched 700,000 acres and displaced 50,000 residents from their homes for more than a week.

The latest fires pose nothing close to that threat yet. And firefighters are getting some help from the weather. Temperatures around the region Tuesday were 10 degrees cooler than they were on Monday. It is still hot and windy, and no rain is on the way, but cooler ocean air is moving onshore and could create the kind of humid, foggy conditions that slow wildfires. Forecasters also say they do not expect another bout of record heat this week.

Authorities are still investigating the cause of some of the wildfires. But police arrested a Riverside County man Monday night and said that he apparently had caused one of the largest blazes by negligently handling some kind of equipment.

One fire, burning near the town of Temecula, has destroyed an artists retreat and forced the evacuation of an elementary school. Some residents whose homes could be in the fire's path have fled to two newly opened evacuation centers.

Another fire that erupted on the dry brush land of the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base in San Diego County is nearly contained. It had spread across nearly 2,000 acres.

Forestry officials said that if the weather cooperates, they might be able to save all the homes now threatened and douse all the wildfires by the end of the week.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company