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‘A very dangerous place to be’: Huge California blaze forces 82,000 evacuations

Firefighters are battling a wildfire raging out of control in drought-stricken Southern California that has forced more than 80,000 to evacuate. (Video: Reuters)

PHELAN, Calif. — A monster wildfire raged through an ever-bigger expanse of southern California on Wednesday, fed by a dangerous combination of hot weather, bone-dry conditions and breezy winds. Dark, thick smoke blocked the sky in communities turned ghost towns, with schools closed and more than 82,000 people ordered to evacuate from their homes.

Despite firefighters from communities statewide being called into service, the Blue Cut fire continued to advance through the canyons, valleys and mountains of rural San Bernardino County, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. Twenty-four hours after the first flames curled along a remote ridge, officials acknowledged that the 30,000-acre blaze was zero percent contained.

No residents have been hurt, but six firefighters attached to the San Bernardino Fire Department were trapped while defending property and helping evacuate several hundred homes, officials reported. Two were injured.

“We were fully engulfed in smoke,” firefighter Cody Anderson told KCBS-TV, as reported by the Associated Press. “It was really hard just to see your hand in front of your face. We just hunkered down and sat there and waited for the fire to blow over.”

More than 1,300 personnel were expected to be on the different fire lines during the day. That number could climb into the “several thousands” by Thursday, and they’ll be deployed in 12-hour day and night shifts, officials said.

The high summer temperatures, which approached triple digits in some locations, helped to drive the fire’s explosive growth, said Bob Poole, a San Bernardino National Forest protection officer. “The fire is moving fast, and we don’t have the ability to get in safely,” he said at the fire crews’ base camp. “This is a very dangerous place to be.”

Throughout the afternoon, helicopters pulled water from the lake there and departed to dump it on hills marked by patches of flames. The steep, rugged terrain in many places made the challenge, whether on the ground or by air, even more difficult.

The wildfire shut the highway leading from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, forcing truckers to the sides of major roads such as Interstate 15 and Highway 138. Photos showed power poles ablaze and train tracks smoking.

Gov. Jerry Brown quickly declared a state of emergency for the entire area.

“It’s busy right now,” said Frank Becerra, a health education specialist for San Bernardino County Animal Care and Control. Animal care workers had labored through the night to collect dogs, cats, horses and livestock. In one day, they amassed 1,000 animals, which were being housed at three shelters. One opened at a local fairground.

Authorities told Oak Hills residents to evacuate on Tuesday, and with fire about a mile from his house, 34-year-old Rafael Zafra complied fast. He packed some photographs, paperwork and pants and went to stay with friends. On Wednesday, he was focused on what he’d left behind.

“I am worried about my home,” he said. “A few crazy neighbors had their cars packed…but they stayed. I left when I was told. The place was not safe.”

California’s terrifying climate forecast: It could face droughts nearly every year

Exacerbating conditions and the wildfire’s aggressive nature are the state’s five years of record drought, experts say. Park Williams, a bio-climatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said vegetation that fuels wildfires is drier than it ordinarily would be.

Global warming “is absolutely contributing to what we’re seeing in California this year, and more broadly, to the increases in fire activity that we’ve seen over the past several decades throughout the western United States,” Williams said Wednesday. “The relationship between fuel dryness and fire activity is exponential. This means that as drying occurs, the effects on fire are increasingly extreme.”

Williams pushed back against statements by some in California that called huge wildfires “the new normal” there. The state’s “relationship between fire and climate is the most unreliable,” he said. While it’s true that warmer, drier years are big fire years in California, the cause and forces that make them grow are more complicated than climate alone.

“There is…a lot else at play. Humans set nearly all of the fires, humans try to fight all of the fires, and some of the biggest fires in California occur during extreme Santa Ana wind events in the fall, which can very quickly dry fuels and spread fire even in relatively wet years,” he said.

This already is one of the very bad years. The San Bernardino fire erupted Tuesday just as firefighters finally began to contain a huge wildfire that had been out of control for several days in northern California.

The Clayton fire, which is believed to be the work of an arsonist, has destroyed at least 175 structures, many of them homes, and burned more than 4,000 acres. Officials said Wednesday that about half of the blaze is now contained. More than 2,300 firefighters have been involved in the effort.

Police have arrested a suspect, Damin Anthony Pashilk, 40, and are holding him on multiple charges of arson. Investigators are trying to determine if the San Francisco native set previous fires in an area plagued by burns.

Pashilk, who has a criminal record of drug possession and firearm charges, had served as an inmate firefighter for several months in 2007, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said.

Dauber reported from Summit Valley. Fears reported from Washington. 

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