BANNING, Calif. (AP) — A Southern California wildfire fueled by strong winds was raging through 4½ square miles of Riverside County on Wednesday in the biggest of a series of statewide fires that broke out amid dry, gusty conditions.
The fast-moving wildfire about 90 miles east of Los Angeles broke out just after noon and was moving westward through largely undeveloped foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, but it was dangerously close to subdivisions to the south, in Banning.
At least 425 firefighters were working to gain control of the fast-moving fire, which has destroyed one home and is 35 percent contained, said Jody Hagemann, spokeswoman for the county fire department. Six helicopters and six air tankers were making water drops.
Hundreds of people from Banning neighborhoods including all the residents of a mobile home park had evacuated in the afternoon, but all had been allowed to return home by late Wednesday night.
Joe Kiener, 53, was on his lunch hour at the childhood home where he still lives when he saw smoke approaching. He and his dog were already pulling out when a deputy came up and told him to evacuate. A few hours later the house was destroyed.
"It's a total loss," Kiener told the Riverside Press-Enterprise. "It really hasn't hit me yet. But it hurts me to lose the house."
The house next door was untouched after a timely wind change.
"It was close!" Kiener's neighbor David Pena said. "God's grace, man. It's a miracle."
Winds of 29 mph were driving the fire, and if they continued, the fire could reach communities in Cherry Valley and Beaumont.
Much of Southern California was under red flag warnings for fire danger due to heat, wind and low humidity levels.
In Northern California, firefighters were battling fires fueled by gusty winds in wine country north of San Francisco.
In Sonoma County, a fire north of Calistoga was fifty percent contained after burning 125 acres. Another fire in nearby Napa County was fully contained after burning 75 acres.
State fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said neither fire was threatening structures, but the blazes across of California could be an ominous sign.
"Statewide, our fire activity is up over 60 percent of normal," Berlant said. "It has everything to do with the fact that conditions are so dry, then you add wind, making the perfect conditions for a fire."
Forecasters said high pressure over the Great Basin would send Santa Ana winds through and below passes and canyons and near coastal foothills until Thursday afternoon.
"We're a bit drier than normal at this time and seeing conditions that we would usually see in June," Berlant said. "If this is an indicator of what's to come, then we're going to be in for a very busy fire season."
In Butte County, a fast-moving blaze called the Panther Fire has burned about half a square mile since it was sparked Wednesday morning, state fire officials said.
A fire in the Central Valley county of Madera that burned 274 acres was fully contained.