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Riverside County fire nears homes

The blaze breaks out along the Santa Ana River bottom and quickly spreads, with 30-foot flames singeing backyards.

March 01, 2013|Phil Willon and Robert J. Lopez
  • Crews fight the fast-moving brush fire in Riverside County. As of late Thursday, officials said, it was about 20% contained.
Crews fight the fast-moving brush fire in Riverside County. As of late Thursday,… (Terry Pierson / The Riverside…)

A fire scorched about 150 acres of heavy brush in Riverside County on Thursday amid unseasonably warm weather, pushing residents to evacuate their neighborhoods as flames singed the backyards of homes.

The blaze quickly spread after breaking out Thursday afternoon along the Santa Ana River bottom between Riverside and an unincorporated part of the county, fire officials said. Flames up to 30 feet high consumed palm trees and thick patches of brush along a jagged half-mile front as firefighters sprayed water on rooftops and residents with garden hoses doused embers in their yards.

About 200 firefighters, aided by a water-dropping helicopter, battled the blaze into the night as residents in several Riverside neighborhoods were issued voluntary evacuation orders. Earlier in the day, the temperature at the nearby Riverside Municipal Airport hit 80 degrees and light Santa Ana winds fanned the flames.

By Thursday night, the winds had calmed. Fire officials said that provided ground crews an opportunity to beat back flames that had come perilously close to homes.

"Once the winds calm down, it allows us to get in there and do an aggressive attack," Capt. Lucas Spellman of the Riverside County Fire Department said.

The blaze was about 20% contained late Thursday. Power lines were down in the area, but it was unclear whether they had sparked the fire. About 1,800 residents were without power, officials said.

As fire crews swarmed hot spots, a mobile home about a quarter of a mile from the brush fire began burning and ignited a propane tank that exploded. Fire officials were investigating whether the blaze was ignited by embers from the brush fire.

On a cul-de-sac along the river bottom, resident Jack Dalman, 84, and his wife watched flames blaze through the brush and singe the palm trees in their backyard. Their 29-year-old grandson John Dalman pulled a garden hose down to the riverbed and stood side-by-side with firefighters as they sprayed water onto the oncoming flames.

Jack Dalman was in a neighborhood urged to evacuate, but the retired Riverside County sheriff's deputy wasn't leaving.

"We've been through this before," said Dalman, who patrolled his backyard in short pants and sandals. "I don't worry."

Jim Ingraham, 77, saw a bank of palm trees explode into a bright orange ball of flames. But he said he wasn't alarmed as he watched a bulldozer cut a fire line along the perimeter of the blaze.

"This is an annual thing," said Ingraham, who also declined to evacuate.


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