Firefighters battle the Banning brush fire Wednesday afternoon. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
A fast-moving brush fire in Riverside County continued to rage out of control Wednesday evening, but officials reported making headway in containing the blaze.
The fire, which had charred at least 1,700 acres near Banning, was 30% contained Wednesday evening, the Riverside County Fire Department said.
Hundreds of people were forced to flee onrushing flames that created a thick pall of smoke that stretched for miles. The blaze was being pushed by powerful Santa Ana winds.
The fire broke out about 12:30 p.m. on a day when officials issued warnings for extreme fire danger. The blaze also came as federal officials issued a report saying that the potential for wildland fires would be above normal during the summer months.
At least 500 people were evacuated Wednesday afternoon in the Banning blaze. Afterward, an unknown number of residents were ordered to leave a 200-unit mobile home park in Highland Springs as flames moved closer to the area, the Riverside County Fire Department said.
Officials opened an evacuation center at the Banning Community Center at 789 N. San Gorgonio Ave. At least one home was devoured by flames, and one firefighter sustained minor injuries.
Winds were gusting up to 35 mph, creating havoc for hundreds of 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.
The heavy smoke prompted the Southern California Air Quality Management District to issue a smoke 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."
Temperatures in the area Wednesday were in the low 80s, and the relative humidity was as low as 12%, fire officials said.
Officials warned Wednesday that a relatively dry winter coupled with warm summer weather could portend a devastating fire season in Southern California and other areas of the West.
"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 some headway in stopping the blaze before stronger Santa Ana winds and warmer weather hit the region Thursday. Temperatures in the 90s and gusts up to 75 mph could hit mountain 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."
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