A fast-moving brush fire powered by Santa Ana winds raged out of control Wednesday in Riverside County, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes and creating a thick pall of smoke that stretched for miles and affected air quality in the region.
The Summit fire, which had charred at least 2,950 acres near Banning, spread quickly after breaking out shortly after noon as hundreds of firefighters struggled to create containment lines and protect homes, officials said. The blaze destroyed at least one home and left one firefighter with minor injuries.
Firefighters were able to take advantage of a lull in the winds Wednesday night and reported that the fire was 35% contained.
The blaze erupted on a day when officials issued warnings for extreme fire danger. The fire also came as federal officials released a report saying that the potential for wildland fires would be above normal for California and other parched areas of the West during the summer months.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has responded to more than 680 wildfires this year, more than 200 over the average for the period, the agency said.
Earlier Wednesday, winds were gusting up to 35 mph. That created havoc for firefighters, who sprayed water on walls of flame and monitored the blaze from rooftops as a dozen helicopters and fixed-wing tankers made repeated water and fire-retardant drops.
"The winds are a major problem here," Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins told reporters.
Temperatures were in the low 80s, and the relative humidity was 12%, fire officials said.
Officials said Wednesday afternoon that about 500 people and several horses were evacuated. Later, an unknown number of residents were ordered to leave a 200-unit mobile home park in Highland Springs as flames moved closer.
An evacuation center was opened at the Banning Community Center, 789 N. San Gorgonio Ave. The evacuation order for the mobile home park and some other areas was lifted Wednesday night, a Fire Department spokeswoman said.
The heavy smoke and ash prompted the Southern California Air Quality Management District to issue an advisory for the area and urge people to avoid unnecessary outdoor activity.
Calimesa resident David Aaron, who lives more than 10 miles from the fire, said the air quality had been affected in his neighborhood.
"I started coughing," he told KTLA-TV Channel 5. "My eyes started watering."
Federal officials warned Wednesday that a relatively dry winter coupled with warm summer weather could portend a devastating fire season.
"Significant fire potential will be above normal" for Southern California and other areas of the West, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho., said in its first outlook report for the 2013 fire season.
In the Banning blaze, fire officials said they were hoping to make significant gains before stronger Santa Ana winds and warmer weather begin Thursday. Temperatures in the 90s and gusts from 50 mph to 75 mph could hit mountain and inland areas by Thursday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service.
The agency issued a red flag warning Wednesday signaling critical fire danger due to high winds, warm weather and low relative humidity. The warning is in effect through Friday evening.
"That's our fear," California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Battalion Chief Julie Hutchinson said of the strong winds expected to hit the region. "I think we're making progress but we still have a whole lot of open line we have to be concerned with."