Erratic Santa Ana winds whipped through an already hot, dry Southern California on Wednesday, spreading flame with the gusts.
More than 1,600 homes were evacuated and several schools closed shortly after the Etiwanda fire broke out about 8 a.m. above Rancho Cucamonga, spewing thick, dark smoke into the subdivisions below. The blaze quickly ballooned, fueled by wind gusts so strong — some upward of 80 miles per hour — they kept low-flying firefighting aircraft grounded.
By day's end, an estimated 1,000 acres had burned and one home was damaged, Cal Fire spokeswoman Liz Brown said. The cause of the fire remained under investigation.
Though mandatory evacuations were lifted Wednesday evening, fire officials kept a wary eye on the forecast. Red-flag warnings had been issued for the area through Thursday afternoon, with windy conditions expected to persist until a cooling trend hits Friday.
Residents allowed to return to their homes were warned to be ready to leave again.
"By no stretch of the imagination are we out of danger," Brown said.
The fire burned across the hillsides in Day Canyon above the Etiwanda Preserve, a remote area accessible only by narrow gravel roads. With the air tankers grounded, crews used bulldozers to build fire lines as residents sprayed water on their properties, hoping to keep the flames at bay.
Barbora Konecna, 40, was teary-eyed as she watched the half-dozen firefighters dousing the vegetation and eucalyptus trees surrounding her two-story home on Banyan Street. As the smoke thickened Wednesday morning, she turned on her own sprinklers. Two fire trucks pulled up not long after.
"I thought, 'Am I coming back here tomorrow?' " she said. "It's emotional, but as long as everybody's safe, we're OK."
Rancho Cucamonga Fire Capt. Ty Harris surveyed the smoke billowing across a field not far from Konecna's home. A hot spot shot reddish flames less than 200 yards away.
The hardest part of Wednesday's firefight, Harris said, were the "very erratic" winds that made the blaze "real messy." The winds were similar, Harris said, to those he fought during the Grand Prix fire, which scorched nearly 60,000 acres in the same area 11 years ago.
"We stood right here on Banyan and watched the fire do the same thing," he said.
Rancho Cucamonga Fire Chief Mike Bell said the Etiwanda fire was not showing the same "explosive" behavior as the Grand Prix blaze, crediting last week's rain for keeping potential fuel moist and calling it the "one thing in our favor."
Firefighters across the Southland were on edge as the heat wave settled in this week, ripening fire conditions with record-setting temperatures and single-digit humidity. Smaller fires flared across the region Wednesday, including a three-acre blaze off the 241 toll road in Irvine.
Also in Orange County, a Newport Beach apartment complex was evacuated as firefighters doused a vegetation fire near Jamboree Road and the 73 Freeway. Fewer than five acres were reportedly burned, but officials said at least one building — a car dealership — was affected by smoke and ash.
In San Diego County, a man living in a homeless encampment in National City was found dead after a brush fire ripped through the area. Whether the man died from that fire or from another cause has not been determined, officials said.
The winds also caused problems. Some flights at Ontario International Airport were diverted because of the high winds, officials said. Gusts also knocked out power to thousands of homes; Southern California Edison said more than 18,600 of its customers were without power by Wednesday evening, including nearly 11,000 in Riverside County alone.