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3 Inland Empire blazes burn nearly 500 acres, force evacuations

A wildfire believed to be sparked by welders prompted evacuations of about 50 homes near Perris; they were lifted late Monday. Two fires in San Bernardino County forced closure of Interstate 15.

August 23, 2011|By Phil Willon and Robert J. Lopez, Los Angeles Times
  • An airplane drops fire retardant on the hillside behind homes to ward off an approaching brush fire. Fifty homes in the Perris area were evacuated temporarily Monday.
An airplane drops fire retardant on the hillside behind homes to ward off… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

Three wildfires burned across dry vegetation Monday in the Inland Empire, forcing mandatory evacuations near Perris and snarling traffic on heavily traveled Interstate 15 in the Cajon Pass.

In Riverside County, welders are believed to have sparked a blaze that had burned 100 acres of light-and-medium vegetation by late Monday and prompted about 50 homes to be evacuated in the unincorporated community of Good Hope northwest of Perris, fire officials said.

In San Bernardino County, two blazes caused officials to shut down most lanes of Interstate 15, an artery that links Las Vegas and the high desert. The fires, reported just before 1 p.m., had burned an estimated 350 acres and destroyed several structures, fire officials said.

A U.S. Forest Service firefighter sustained minor injuries battling the blaze, and a resident with a preexisting medical condition was taken to a hospital.

Authorities at the Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area in the San Bernardino Mountains evacuated all campers as a precaution.

Late Monday, the blaze near Perris was 60% contained and evacuation orders were lifted, officials said. The largest fire in the Cajon Pass was 35% contained.

Earlier in the day, firefighters were battling the blazes in near triple-digit temperatures with relative humidity about 16% — conditions that helped the flames spread quickly, officials said.

Nearly 200 firefighters worked the fire near Perris, where steep, boulder-strewn terrain made access difficult for fire engines. It had grown to 125 acres by late Monday.

"We're making progress, but we're working in difficult terrain," Capt. Mike Smith of the Riverside County Fire Department said in a phone interview from the scene.

Ground crews were being assisted by an aerial attack that included three water-dropping helicopters and three tanker planes, officials said. Firefighters were able to beat back flames that threatened a UC Riverside education facility.

Officials said the welders believed to be responsible for starting the blaze fled the scene and were being sought by authorities.

In the Cajon Pass, Forest Service spokesman Bob Poole said the fire, called the Ken fire, started near the bottom of the pass and was burning northeast up the mountain into thick grass and brush. Fire crews expected the spread of the flames to slow once the sun went down.

"We don't have the cause at this point," Poole said, "but we have investigators at the scene."

About 600 firefighters were dispatched to battle the blaze, which destroyed a home, two storage containers and three outbuildings near Matthews Ranch.

A small number of homes in the ranch area near Devore also were evacuated, Poole said.

A second, smaller fire near the top of the Cajon Pass was quickly doused and held to less than five acres, Poole said.

By Monday evening, all southbound lanes of Interstate 15 were open, and all but two lanes on the northbound side were open. Traffic, however, was a mess in both directions.

Compounding difficulties for drivers was a 2,000-gallon fuel spill in the town of Baker, where a big-rig collided with a fuel truck, Caltrans officials said. The southbound lanes of I-15 were expected to be closed until early Tuesday as crews cleaned up the spill.

At Silverwood Lake, officials said they decided to evacuate campers even though the flames were five miles away.

"We see smoke, so we're just trying to do it as a precaution," said Kevin Forrester, superintendent of the state park.

Forrester said it was a light day as far as visitors, but he wasn't able to provide a precise number.

The Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area is northwest of Lake Arrowhead. At 3,350 feet, it is the highest reservoir in the State Water Project and is popular among boaters, anglers and water skiers.

phil.willon@latimes.com

robert.lopez@latimes.com

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