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California and the West

Brush Fires Sweep Through Southland

Disasters: One man is killed en route to fighting a blaze in Lancaster; 36 structures destroyed in Riverside County.

September 01, 1998|MILES CORWIN and MARTHA WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A series of fast-moving brush fires, fueled by bone-dry brush, sweltering temperatures and high winds, swept through Southern California Monday, destroying more than 36 structures in Riverside County, killing a Los Angeles County inmate en route to a blaze in Lancaster and critically injuring another.

The structures that were destroyed Monday night--some of them houses and mobile homes--were about 10 miles west of Hemet, in the Juniper Flats area. Authorities ordered the evacuation of residents in the path of the 5,000-acre fire.

"It's not heavily populated but there are a number of scattered homes, mobile homes and outbuildings in the path of the fire," said Cassandra Thompson, a Riverside County fire information officer.

About 100 Riverside County firefighters contended with a continuing heat wave and rugged terrain as they combated two fires simultaneously, which may have been caused by lightning strikes. In addition to the Juniper Flats fire, they fought a wildfire in the foothills just east of Corona that also had consumed about 2,000 acres. A number of structures were threatened late Monday night, but none had yet burned. There were no injuries reported in the Riverside County fires.

In Lancaster, a truck carrying a crew of Los Angeles County inmate-firefighters overturned Monday night, killing one passenger and injuring 11 others, according to county officials.

One person was critically hurt and another 10 suffered moderate or minor injuries, said county fire dispatcher Gil Garcia.

The accident occurred at about 5 p.m., as the inmate crew was returning to its base in the Angeles National Forest after fighting a brush fire in the high desert, authorities said. The inmates are volunteers who help out in fire emergencies.

The cause of the accident was not immediately known, and the identity of the dead prisoner was not released.

Earlier Monday in Orange County, fire crews and water-dropping aircraft battled a 20-acre brush fire as temperatures hovered close to triple digits. One firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion.

"It's very warm out there," said Kymbra Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Fire Authority. "We have commanders monitoring their condition so that we don't overwork these firefighters, and we have a canteen set up to keep them hydrated."

Arson investigators were on the scene to determine the cause of the fire in a remote area known as Holy Jim Canyon. No structural damage was reported in the sparsely populated area, which is near the Cleveland National Forest.

"We're really only seeing the beginning of the true fire season," said Steve Markkanen, a senior forecaster with the National Weather Service. "There's a lot more plant growth than usual because of the El Nino rains, which lasted until well into the spring, and all that brush and grass are now at the point where they're getting extremely dry."

Fire officials warned that because broiling temperatures are expected until Friday, brush fires could be a problem all week in Southern California.

The heat wave, which set records over the weekend, closed out one of the hottest Augusts on record.

As temperatures continued well above normal on Monday, some residents dealt with thunder, lightening, brief rainstorms, and electrical blackouts, while firefighters coped with brush fires.

In eastern Los Angeles County, a tornado warning was issued Monday evening by the National Weather Service for residents in the vicinity of the Santa Fe Dam.

Temperatures were well above normal Monday, but several degrees below the record in most areas. It was 99 in downtown Los Angeles, just below the record for the date and four degrees below Sunday's temperature, which was a record high. The average August high temperature for the Civic Center is 85 degrees.

In Van Nuys, it was 104, six degrees below Sunday's mark. In Pasadena it was 106, several degrees below Sunday's record-breaking temperature.

In the valley areas of Southern California, the month was one of the five hottest Augusts in history, said meteorologist Jeff House of WeatherData Inc., which provides forecasts for the Times. And for the Southland in general--outside of the beach areas--it was one of the 10 hottest Augusts in history.

The first half of the summer was about average, House said. But during the past month, the temperature has been well above normal, with a number of record-breaking days.

During August, the cool marine layer along the coast usually drifts farther east, dropping temperatures, House said.

"But recently, a high pressure system from the Southwest desert has poked closer to the coast than usual," House said. "This system is squashing the marine layer and keeping it so sallow that it can't make it inland."

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