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Riverside County wildfire's speed shows growing risks

The Silver blaze is the latest sign that 2013 is shaping up to be a particularly bad fire season. Record dry conditions are a key factor.

August 08, 2013|By Christine Mai-Duc, Joseph Serna and Jason Wells
  • A plane drops fire retardant on the eastern flank of the Silver fire in Twin Pines, near Banning, on Thursday.
A plane drops fire retardant on the eastern flank of the Silver fire in Twin… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

BANNING, Calif. — The photo flashed across a cellphone, frightening Kymberley Heighes.

It showed her mountain home framed by a wall of dark smoke. The Silver fire was in its early stages Wednesday afternoon, burning more than 1,000 acres per hour — a speed that overwhelmed firefighters and residents such as Heighes, who lives in the sparsely populated mountain ranges south of Interstate 10 near Banning.

"I knew it wasn't normal smoke, I knew it was bad," said Heighes, 50, describing her panic as she saw the photo while at a friend's home, then sped home with her 18-year-old son. Heighes arrived in time to see two of her other children being evacuated by a neighbor, and to save a few of her pets. But she could do nothing about her blue mobile home, which burned down.

On Thursday, hundreds of firefighters struggled to control the blaze, which had burned more than 11,000 acres. By afternoon, firefighters had achieved 10% containment. But they said they won't soon forget the fire's ferocious beginning, a runaway path through dry grass on steep mountainsides — the flames forcing sudden evacuations, injuring four firefighters and leaving a man with burns from head to toe.

John Hawkins, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection chief in Riverside County, described the Silver fire as "one of the most rapidly spreading … dangerous fires that I have seen" in 50 years with the agency.

The blaze is the latest sign that 2013 is shaping up to be a particularly damaging wildfire season. Record dry conditions have left hillsides and canyons like the ones south of Banning particularly susceptible to big burns. Roughly 80,000 acres across the state have burned so far this year, according to Cal Fire, about double last year's total at this time.

The area near Banning, Palm Springs and Idyllwild has been especially hard-hit. State officials noted that several fires in that area have now burned with great intensity ahead of the fall, when Santa Ana winds typically cause the most concern about uncontrolled blazes.

"The intensity isn't being caused by winds, they're caused by fuel," said Cal Fire Deputy Director Janet Upton, referring to the dried-out vegetation. "They're causing fire behavior to be extreme."

When the blaze began about 2 p.m. Wednesday, the stage was set for explosive growth. It pushed rapidly over steep terrain, outbuildings, homes and vehicles, whipped along by the strong and steady winds common to the region.

"It grew up to 5,000 acres in the first four hours. That's a huge, huge growth," said Cal Fire spokesman Lucas Spelman. "I'm not sure 1,000 fire engines would have put the fire out yesterday."

For about three hours the blaze's fury brought back haunting memories of the 2006 Esperanza fire, which consumed 40,200 acres and killed five firefighters in the same area.

The communities of Poppet Flats, Twin Pines, Vista Grande, Mt. Edna and Silent Valley were ordered evacuated. But with the flames spreading rapidly, several key road exits were cut off, forcing emergency crews to ask some residents to "shelter in place" until firefighters and sheriff's deputies could safely escort them out.

A man who was found in the early stages of the fire by a fire investigator had to be airlifted to Arrowhead Hospital after being burned "head to toe," said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Julie Hutchinson. The condition of the man, whose name has not been released, could not immediately be determined, but he was reported to have suffered serious burns.

"This is a different side of the San Jacinto Mountains. This fire has definitely grown a lot faster than the one last month," said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant, referring to the Mountain fire, which burned 27,000 acres and destroyed several structures.

Firefighters were able to finally control the July fire after cooler, and wetter, than normal conditions occurred.

Heighes knows first-hand just how extreme fires have become. She said she nearly lost her home in the Esperanza fire. This time she was able to evacuate with her children, but the flames engulfed her property and probably killed several of her pets, a menagerie that included goats, ducks, 30 chickens and four dogs.

"I just can't stop thinking about them," she said, breaking down in tears as she stood inside a Red Cross evacuation center at Beaumont High School. "I care about my house, but my animals more."

Mai-Duc reported from Banning, Serna and Wells from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Kurt Streeter and Bettina Boxall contributed to this report.

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