A thousand firefighters battled a 4,000-acre brush blaze Wednesday that burned through the Cleveland National Forest near Lake Elsinore, forcing evacuation of at least 200 residents.
"The smoke is so bad you feel like you could cut it with a knife," said Pat Rambo, a Riverside County Sheriff's Department employee stationed in Lake Elsinore. "We're also getting ashes falling all over the place."
Wind gusts were pushing the fire in several directions, but by late afternoon, one arm of the blaze was moving toward Lakeland Village, a mile south of Lake Elsinore, and another was heading toward Rancho Capistrano, 5 1/2 miles south of Ortega Highway, said Carol Stein, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman.
There were no serious injuries as a result of the fire, a third of which had been contained by early afternoon, authorities said. No structures were reported damaged, they said.
At Rancho Capistrano, 200 residents were evacuated to Lake Elsinore High School, where the American Red Cross established a relief center.
At 4:30 p.m., the fire had revived near El Cariso Village, a community of more than 100 whose tiny commercial strip lines both sides of Ortega Highway.
U.S. Forest Service engineer Jim Parkinson said the evacuations of a nudist camp, a youth correctional facility and campgrounds Tuesday night proved unnecessary.
While the blaze moved toward the Lake Elsinore area, home to an estimated 15,000 people, Orange County Sheriff's Department officials at the scene said they did not believe that the fire threatened the community.
A three-year drought that has left the brush at its thickest and driest in 30 years fueled the rapid spread of the blaze, which gobbled up 3,000 acres of chaparral in five hours Tuesday, U.S. Forestry Service officials said.
Because of the parched conditions, officials said they brought in a large number of firefighters, from as far away as Washington state, to attack the blaze from the air and ground.
"We're ready for a battle," Tom Horner, U.S. Forestry Service spokesman, said Wednesday.
The cause of the fire, which erupted at 3:15 p.m. Tuesday a quarter-mile from the border of Orange and Riverside counties, has not been determined. But officials said they suspect a person was responsible because there were no burning cars, electrical wires or lightning flashes in the area.
"There was nothing out there but brush and a road," said Parkinson, whose engine company was the first to arrive at the blaze.
Ortega Highway, the primary link between south Orange County and Lake Elsinore in Riverside County, has been closed since the fire broke out, forcing commuters to take lengthy detours.
The California Highway Patrol said Wednesday that, even if the fire were contained Wednesday, a 25-mile stretch of the two-lane highway would remain closed between Caspers Regional Park and Grand Avenue in Lake Elsinore for at least two days so that fire damage could be repaired.