A fresh wildfire engulfed a few homes and threatened others early Thursday in Southern California’s San Bernardino, officials said, stunning residents who awoke to rushed evacuation orders as the blaze raced from the hillsides into at least one neighborhood.
The Hillside Fire — which started sometime after midnight in vegetation above San Bernardino — quickly consumed about 200 acres, officials said, and is one of at least 10 active wildfires in a state plagued by them in recent weeks.
Strong winds Thursday threaten to stoke the flames further. With winds stronger than 50 mph expected in some areas, more than 17 million people in Southern California are under red flag warnings — meaning wind, humidity and other conditions are ripe for fires.
At least two homes were ablaze in northern San Bernardino well before dawn Thursday. Hundreds of firefighters were there, trying to contain the flames, and firefighting aircraft were expected to join as soon as the sun rose, San Bernardino County Fire Department spokesman Chris Prater said.
The fire was a few miles away from Cal State San Bernardino, which was closed Thursday because the regional utility intentionally cut power as a precaution, hoping to prevent fires in the red-flag conditions. The campus lost power at 3:20 a.m. Thursday.
Evacuations have been ordered for about 490 homes in northern San Bernardino, accounting for about 1,300 people, the county fire department said.
Just to the southeast, firefighters also were battling a blaze that erupted Thursday morning in Riverside County’s Jurupa Valley, prompting evacuations. With county fire officials reporting three homes there destroyed, workers at a pet adoption center prepared evacuations as flames licked nearby brush, an employee told CNN affiliate KTLA.
Fires in the Los Angeles area
Thursday’s winds will be of no help to Los Angeles-area firefighters, who are battling several blazes.
The Getty Fire in Los Angeles, which began Monday, is threatening more than 7,000 homes, the Los Angeles Fire Department said. Most evacuations have been lifted, and the blaze is nearly 40% contained.
And about 40 miles northwest of the city, the Easy Fire broke out in Simi Valley Wednesday. Wind gusts of hurricane force — at least 74 mph — were reported at a weather station about seven miles north of Simi Valley.
The Easy Fire quickly consumed more than 1,600 acres in Ventura County and threatened 6,500 homes, officials said. The fire forced school closures and mandatory evacuations of about 30,000 people in Simi Valley, officials said. Three firefighters have been hurt.
Those evacuations included the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where the former President and his wife, Nancy, are buried. The facility appeared safe by Wednesday evening after firefighters responded.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Wednesday the state had secured a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help fight the Easy Fire. The grant allows affected local and state and agencies to apply for a 75% reimbursement of eligible fire suppression costs.
Power companies may be responsible for fires
The Simi Valley wildfire started near a Southern California Edison sub-transmission line, the power company said, adding that it has filed a report with the state Public Utilities Commission.
“SCE is conducting a review into the circumstances surrounding the fire, and will cooperate with all investigations into the origin and cause of the fire,” the company said in a statement.
The company said Tuesday that its equipment likely also contributed to the Woolsey Fire last November. The fire became one of the most destructive in the state, according to the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection, killing three people and destroying more than 1,600 structures.
In Northern California, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) filed three reports with the California Public Utility Commission Wednesday indicating that its equipment may be involved in the start of three fires, according to officials.
Bill Johnson, CEO and President of PG&E Corporation, told media the company has contacted the state about reports of videos possibly showing sparking powerlines at the Bethel Island and Oakley fires.
A third report was then filed linking its equipment to a fire in Milpitas, California.
“Troublemen observed wire down. They observed two houses, two cars, and a shed damaged by the fire. An on-site Milpitas Fire Department Investigator informed the troubleman that he was looking at the downed wire as a potential ignition source and collected a portion of the conductor into evidence,” PG&E said in a statement to CNN.
PG&E has been under scrutiny in recent years for the role its equipment played in several devastating fires across the state, including last year’s deadly Camp Fire, which killed 85 people. Over the last weeks, the utility has been enacting preventative shutoffs all over northern and central California.
‘We’re ready to go and say goodbye to our home’
Brigitte Kouba Neves, a Los Angeles native, says her heart stopped when her neighbor knocked on her door early Monday and told her they were in the evacuation zone.
“I can’t explain the feeling of packing a bag with the items I want to save from a fire,” she said in an Instagram post describing how she and her husband chose daily essentials and their wedding album.
Neves lives in a voluntary evacuation zone. So far, she’s been safe, but that could change at any moment.
“Currently, we have our suitcases by the door, the car is packed, and we’re ready to go and say goodbye to our home if they say we must,” she wrote. But she told CNN what’s it’s like to live under constant threat and worry.
“I have 3-year-old twins with sensitive lungs, so school has been canceled a lot, they’ve had to wear masks, and we’ve discussed the fact that there are fires far away … and it changes air quality,” she said. “We’ve let them role play with their firefighter outfits and trucks.”
California’s biggest fire is far from contained
North of the San Francisco Bay, the week-old Kincade Fire — the state’s largest active wildfire — has destroyed nearly 77,000 acres across Sonoma County and more than 260 structures, including more than 130 single-family homes, officials said.
It was only 45% contained as of Wednesday evening. At the Sonoma County Airport, several airlines have canceled all flights for Thursday.
The Kincade Fire started October 23, but the cause is still under investigation.
The good news: Forecasters say winds will weaken through Thursday, and more residents can go home.
About 2,400 people from the 186,000 under evacuation orders had returned to their homes as of Tuesday night, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said.
“Many of these people are still returning to homes that are without power because of the PG&E power shutoff,” he said. “So we want people to be vigilant, be aware communication may not be great.”