Hundreds of firefighters, hampered by steep terrain and darkness, struggled Tuesday night to halt the summer's first major brush fire, a 3,000-acre blaze that raced through the Cleveland National Forest east of San Juan Capistrano and threatened more than 100 homes.
The fire roared unchecked on both sides of Ortega Highway, the primary link between south Orange County and Lake Elsinore in Riverside County. The highway was shut down shortly after the fire erupted about 4 p.m. near the Upper San Juan campground, about 15 miles east of Interstate 5. What sparked the fire is unknown, officials said.
By dusk, nearly 600 firefighters from half a dozen departments were battling the blaze as it moved north and east. At least seven remote campgrounds and clusters of homes tucked into the isolated canyons and mountain valleys were threatened by the advancing flames.
"It's steep and rocky and there's an abundance of fuel," said California Department of Forestry spokesman Bill Bruggema, referring to the dense chaparral. "There's no expectation of containment. The fire is moving at a pretty good clip. . . . No telling how big this might get."
Before darkness fell, firefighters were assisted by chemical and water drops from nine airplanes and four helicopters. But the aerial assault failed to slow the blaze, which forced officials to evacuate residents in El Cariso Village, the Ortega campground, Morrell Canyon and those living along Long Canyon Road. The fire also threatened the Convail Nudist Camp and moved within half a mile of Los Pinos Rural Job Corps Center, a center for juvenile inmates, but the camp was not evacuated.
Any chance of quickly encircling the blaze was foiled when it split into three "heads" and fanned out in two directions on both sides of the Orange-Riverside county line, Bruggema said. Mild temperatures and light winds seemed to favor firefighters, but three years of below-average rainfall have created "tinder dry" conditions in the area.
"It is extremely dry," said Bob Paul, another forestry spokesman, who added that the vegetation in the area is 25 to 30 years old, and rainfall last year was less than 50% of normal.
"You get those fires in those canyons, and they will create their own wind."
American Red Cross personnel had readied an evacuation center at Lake Elsinore High School, but it was never opened because no one showed up in need of assistance. Late Tuesday night, no homes had been lost and no one had been reported injured.
Within minutes of the bulletins about the blaze, the California Highway Patrol closed Ortega Highway, creating a rush-hour nightmare for commuters who travel the 34-mile road between Orange County's job centers and a string of bedroom communities around Lake Elsinore. A command post was set up at Caspers Wilderness Park, and only those who lived in the fire area where allowed beyond that point. The highway was officially closed all the way to Grand Avenue in Lake Elsinore.
Many of the commuters were forced to turn around and either go south to San Diego County or north to Santa Ana Canyon and then east to eventually reach the Elsinore area.
"A lot of people were awfully mad," one CHP dispatcher said. "For some people, it probably meant an extra two hours on the road."
Bill Winston, a restaurant manager in San Juan Capistrano who lives in the Riverside County community of Corona, was one of the Ortega commuters forced to take the long way home.
"Taking Ortega over the mountains saves me anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes on my drive," said Winston as he was leaving work for the drive home. "Now, I've got to go up the (Interstate) 5 into Orange County. That's a frightening concept."
Initially, the CHP said Ortega would be closed until midnight, but by nightfall officials said the road would not reopen until this morning at the earliest.
Firefighters on the lines came from Orange and Riverside counties, as well as the California Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service. At least eight bulldozers were on the scene to clear fire breaks and trails along slopes and ridgelines. Another 40 fire engines joined the battle.
Many of the homes in the area threatened by the fire were described as "luxurious." Dave Struthers, manager of maintenance and operations for the Lake Elsinore Unified School District, said many of those living in what he called the "summit area" along the Ortega Highway had moved there seeking privacy. The area is roughly 1,800 to 2,500 feet above sea level, with dense growth.
"People moved there because they wanted some land and space," Struthers said.
Times staff writer Ted Johnson contributed to this report.
Part II, Page 1