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Over 8,000 firefighters battle blazes across California

As wildfires char dry Riverside and San Diego counties, some areas are evacuated, but there is little damage to structures and some progress is being made.

August 16, 2012|By Phil Willon and Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • A U.S. Navy helicopter comes in for water in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Marine Corps and Navy helicopters were helping Cal Fire in northeastern San Diego County, where a wildfire was threatening power lines.
A U.S. Navy helicopter comes in for water in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

Lightning-caused wildfires continued to race across thousands of back-country acres in parched Riverside and San Diego counties, destroying at least four structures and forcing residents of several small communities to evacuate.

Thousands of firefighters battled flames that erupted well ahead of the fall months that bring hot, dry Santa Ana winds that often define the height of "fire season" in Southern California.

Wildfires were reported Wednesday throughout California, including the Juniper Flats area of San Bernardino County, near the Jawbone recreation area of Kern County, the Stanislaus National Forest, Lassen Volcanic National Park in Lassen County, and the Klamath National Forest of Siskiyou County.

PHOTOS: San Diego County wildfires

More than 8,000 state, local and federal firefighters were fighting upward of a dozen major wildfires statewide, according to Chief Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In Northern California, residents of a nudist colony in Lake County were ordered to be ready to get dressed and evacuate.

In Riverside County, fire crews found a hidden marijuana field and two men possibly trying to protect their illicit grove from the approaching flames. Elsewhere in the county, prison crews used shovels and a bulldozer to create a fire block to thwart the flames.

In northeast San Diego County, eight Marine Corps helicopters and three Navy helicopters were deployed to help the state fire agency with the five blazes that formed the Vallecito Lightning Complex fire and were threatening several hundred structures and key power lines.

As the day stretched into night, some tentative signs of progress were reported along various fire lines.

The battle to control the Buck fire that had burned nearly 3,000 acres south of Hemet in Riverside County was "looking good" as firefighters worked to keep the blaze from spreading east onto Cahuilla Mountain, officials said.

"Right now, we pretty much have the spread stopped," said fire agency Capt. Mark Barr. He added: "It's looking good, and we're going to keep it that way."

As of Wednesday evening, the Buck fire was 40% contained and about 1,000 firefighters were battling the blaze. The cost of combating the fire was estimated at $1.5 million.

Barr spoke as a smoky haze enveloped the rocky foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains. Desert brush was charred around a scattering of mobile homes. The blaze damaged four structures, including one house, but crews managed to save homes on the northern edge of the fire.

Hand crews spent the night and morning dousing hot spots. More than 400 firefighters are fighting the blaze.

The fire has ripped through chaparral and grasslands, prompting the evacuation of more than 30 homes and injuring two firefighters, as well as one civilian, who sustained third-degree burns.

Barr could not say whether the man lived in the area but said he did not come from any of the homes or trailers nearby.

"He just came from out there," Barr said, pointing to the desolate, empty foothills. "He was walking and talking, but his burns were pretty severe."

In San Diego County, the Marine helicopters, a mix of CH-53 Super Stallions and CH-46 Sea Knights, were used to drop water and to take firefighters to otherwise inaccessible locations, officials said. The Navy's specially-equipped MH-60S Seahawk helicopters joined the state fire agency's air tankers and helicopters.

Nearly 1,500 firefighters were fighting five fires started by lightning near Julian. The five fires have now burned 15,525 acres and are 35% contained. No structures have been damaged but power lines to Borrego Springs, Warner Springs and Ranchita were threatened.

Evacuation orders remained in effect for the tiny communities of Ranchita and San Felipe off Highway 78.

Ahead of the approaching flames, rural residents brought their pets, horses, goats and other livestock to several locations, including Creek Hollow Ranch in Ramona, for the larger animals, and, for the smaller animals, the Red Cross shelter at Warner Springs High School.

Officials reported that most residents were cooperative, leaving when ordered to do so, and not clogging important access roads with vehicles.

But when firefighters battling the Buck fire went to Debra Lawrence's trailer to tell her to evacuate, she balked.

Lawrence, 61, refused to abandon her 15 alpacas, even after animal control officials offered to move them to safety. So she moved the woolly animals to higher ground and retired to her Nomad trailer with her two dogs, two cats and a shotgun she uses to kill rattlesnakes, watching the movie "Smokin' Aces" to stay awake.

By early Wednesday, Lawrence was out of danger. But the fire had come within 100 yards of her trailer.

"The fire was close, so close," she said. "The whole sky was red. Red, red, red."

phil.willon@latimes.com

tony.perry@latimes.com

Willon reported from Hemet, and Perry reported from San Diego.

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