RANCHO CUCAMONGA, California — Fire crews took advantage of a lull in the hot, dry Santa Ana winds Friday night to try to get a handle on the Grand Prix blaze that has scorched more than 12,000 acres and forced more than 2,000 people from their homes.
Fire officials believe the wind-driven wildfire that started Tuesday near the San Bernardino National Forest east of Los Angeles was deliberately set.
Friday afternoon, firefighters began using fixed-wing aircraft to dump fire retardant on the flames, something they couldn’t do earlier when gusty winds made flying unsafe.
Gov. Gray Davis told reporters in Rancho Cucamonga Friday that 1,400 firefighters were on alert to be sent to the area in addition to the 1,400 or so already working the blaze, and that 15 more helicopters are preparing to go to the region.
“The great thing about California is, in every natural disaster we all work together … we’re all pulling in the same direction, trying to get people through the day,” Davis said.
Smoke and debris from the fire were seen 40 miles to the west in Hollywood.
The fire began Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Forest Service Information Officer Michael Esperza said, and authorities have ruled out natural or regional causes, leading them to suspect arson.
As of Friday evening, the flames were 17 percent contained, and all major roads in the area had been reopened. Only secondary mountain roads in the direct path of the fire remained closed.
The San Bernardino Fire Department said at least three homes had been destroyed by the fire, but officials aren’t sure how many other structures have been destroyed because flames are still burning in areas that were evacuated.
The Santa Ana winds swept down Day Canyon faster than expected, Rancho Cucamonga city spokesman Duane Baker told CNN, which whipped the long line of orange flames toward the northern city limits and forced firefighters to rush into action.
“The wind certainly makes this a fast-moving situation,” Baker said. “It makes it a much more fluid situation than it has been.”
Baker said officials hadn’t expected the winds to kick up until late Friday or early Saturday, but instead the Santa Anas blew in overnight Thursday — with 40 mph gusts amid a steady 10-15 mph breeze — and the fire crept close to hundreds of homes.
A Rancho Cucamonga resident prepares to evacuate as flames move closer to her neighborhood on Friday.
Unfortunately for firefighters and residents, conditions are likely to get worse this weekend, CNN meteorologist Orelon Sydney said.
The National Weather Service predicts that low humidity and sustained winds of 25-35 mph with gusts up to 45 mph will persist in the region through Monday afternoon.
“[The winds are] going to get worse over the weekend and probably not diminish until the middle of next week,” Sydney said. “It’s a pretty typical Santa Ana condition.”
One water-dropping helicopter that was helping fight the blaze Thursday had to land in a remote area of the mountains with mechanical problems, Esperza said.
The pilot apparently spent the night next to the disabled copter and left the area early Friday morning. Before teams could return to the site to fix it, Esperza said, flames overtook the area and the aircraft was burned.
Area schools and roads had been closed earlier Friday, including Interstate 15, which runs from Southern California to Las Vegas and beyond, and Interstate 210, which runs east-to-west through the region.
Officials ordered mandatory evacuations of nearby Lytle Creek, Upper Lytle Creek and the areas north of Banyan to Interstate 15, and east of Day Creek.
The National Forest Service reported one man was injured overnight as he tried to battle flames threatening his home. The man, whose name was not released, had rejected an evacuation that was ordered overnight in the Lytle Creek area, northeast of Rancho Cucamonga and about 55 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
The man was treated for burns to his hands and arms, officials said.
Fire officials said three firefighters had suffered minor injuries, but none as a direct result of the fire.
Copyright © 2003 The East Carolinian.