Firefighters who held the line overnight against a wind-whipped wildfire burning above Rancho Cucamonga were limited to ground work Thursday morning as winds of up to 50 mph kept all water-dropping aircraft out of the fight.
Two air tankers and three helicopters were standing by, ready to drop water and flame retardant on the 1,000-acre Etiwanda fire, but as of noon had not been permitted to fly, fire officials said.
“It’s not just the air and how it is over the fire, it’s also the air of where they’re taking off,” said Brian Grant of the U.S. Forest Service. “They have to get into that steep terrain and narrow canyons and the wind changes so rapidly…it’s not safe for the aircraft.”
In the meantime, crews of bulldozers and hand crews were building up defenses along the blaze’s southwestern face, where winds between 30 and 50 mph pushed the flames toward Day and Deer canyons north of the city. More than 700 firefighters were out at the scene midday.
The blaze was first reported shortly after 8 a.m. Wednesday and quickly exploded in size amid powerful Santa Ana winds, extremely dry air and unseasonably high temperatures. Wind gusts above 80 mph grounded aircraft Tuesday too, complicating the task of fighting the fire as it zigzagged along the parched brush- and chaparral-covered hillsides.
While weather forecasters expected conditions to be even hotter and drier Thursday, fire crews expected to make more progress in Day 2 of the wildfire.
“We anticipate a good day; hopefully nothing will happen,” said Rancho Cucamonga Fire Chief Mike Bell.
No injuries or major damage had been reported as a result of the blaze so far. Fire officials on Thursday said one house sustained minor damage, but did not elaborate. More than 1,600 homes on Wednesday were under mandatory evacuation orders, but those were downgraded to voluntary by the afternoon.
“The bad news is, we're going to have some tough, hot, dry, windy conditions to fight that fire, and in case any other fire gets started, it's going to spread quickly,” said Miguel Miller, a forecaster with the National Weather Service. “The good news is, conditions will improve this afternoon.”
Meanwhile, sustained winds blowing southwest continued to push plumes of smoke and ash into Rancho Cucamonga and beyond.
The winds, however, should begin to subside after noon, and drop to a “light breeze” by the evening, Miller said.