California wildfire, fueled by desert winds, forces evacuations

By Omar Younis

TEMECULA, California (Reuters) -A Southern California wildfire fueled by desert winds burned 2,487 acres (1,010 hectares) and prompted evacuation orders for more than 4,000 people in Riverside County, officials said on Tuesday.

The Highland Fire nearly doubled in size from Monday night to Tuesday, blowing toward the west by Santa Ana winds. The seasonal phenomenon occurs when dry desert air blows toward the ocean, creating a fire hazard in Southern California.

The fire was 10% contained as of Tuesday night, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said, after crews attacked the blaze on the ground and aircraft dropped fuchsia-colored retardant.

Some 1,220 homes and 4,270 residents were under mandatory evacuation orders, with another 1,136 homes and 3,976 residents under evacuation warnings, Cal Fire spokesperson Thomas Shoots said.

Officials opened one evacuee center for people and another for animals, while those staying at a resort for recreational vehicles drove their campers to a Walmart parking lot in Temecula about 15 miles (25 km) away.

Some people said they left the RV resort at the prodding of first responders, escaping flames that later entered the site.

“I had to grab dog food and basically just get in my van and leave,” said Barb Bommarito.

Robert Duke, 85, said people were uncertain about whether the evacuation was necessary.

“It was made mandatory with law-enforcement cars coming around with red and blue flashing lights and broadcasting … that we should all leave,” Duke said.

The cause of the fire was being investigated, Cal Fire said, adding that the fire was a continuing threat with several roads closed and evacuation orders in effect.

Southern California has had a mild fire year in 2023, after unusually heavy rainfall that included the first tropical storm to reach heavily populated areas in the state in 84 years.

(Reporting by Omar Younis in Temecula, Mike Blake in Aguanga and Daniel Trotta in Carlsbad, California; Editing by Mary Milliken, Jonathan Oatis and Tom Hogue)