A fast-moving fire erupted in hillside terrain near Murrieta on Wednesday night, quickly scorching almost 1,000 acres and prompting mandatory evacuation orders for multiple residential enclaves as fire officials urged others nearby to voluntarily leave.
At least 300 firefighters responded to the Tenaja fire in Riverside County, which sent up an eerie and massive plume of smoke at dusk. By nightfall, hillsides were aglow in hot and windy conditions on a day marked by thunderstorms in the region. By late Wednesday, the fire had burned hillsides in unincorporated Riverside County and appeared to be headed northeast toward Murrieta.
The mandatory evacuation orders included all homes along The Trails Circle in La Cresta and Copper Canyon, as well as the Santa Rosa Plateau Visitor Center along Clinton Keith Road. Residents of Murrieta’s Bear Creek community were under voluntary evacuation. Campuses in the Murrieta Valley Unified School District will be closed Thursday as a precaution.
By 11 p.m., fire officials were anticipating that the fire would likely slow down as humidity levels hovered at about 55%, and the wind had died down to a breeze.
Dozers continued building containment lines late Wednesday night, and firefighters planned to work through the night aiming to stop the blaze’s trek toward Murrieta. The Copper Canyon neighborhood, northeast of the fire, remained the biggest concern for fire officials, a Cal Fire spokeswoman said.
The fire took hold in heavy brush and was reported about 4 p.m. near Tenaja and Clinton Keith roads, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Nearby residents were surprised by the speed of the fire.
Rachel Gildersleeve, unaware of the seriousness of the fire that had just broken out, decided to take the back road home from school.
As she was driving, the 18-year-old Murrieta resident started to see smoke and then a small flame. The two cars in front of her kept going, and Gildersleeve looked at the burned ground and figured the fire must be contained.
But as she and the others drove on Tenaja Road toward Clinton Keith Road, the fire exploded around her. Without cell service, she couldn’t call 911. Her only option was to keep driving.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God’ when I couldn’t even see in front of me,” Gildersleeve said. “At one point, the car in front of me disappeared. I couldn’t see anything. All I saw was flames. All I saw was smoke, and I thought ‘I don’t know if I’m going to make it.’ ”
Finally, the smoke started to clear, and Gildersleeve saw several firetrucks in the distance. She’d made it out alive.
Six air tankers and three helicopters were busy throughout the evening dropping water and retardant on the growing blaze, but were grounded at nightfall. The Orange County Fire Authority sent two water-dropping helicopters with night flying capabilities, said Tawny Cabral, a public information officer with Cal Fire Riverside, about 8 p.m. Wednesday.
Ray Rock, 22, of Murrieta, was standing in his front yard Wednesday evening watching the fire creep closer. Rock said the fire, as the crow flies, was about 3½ miles from his home.
Ash was falling from the sky, and a steady wind was blowing through the area, he said.
“So I’m watching the Tenaja fire crest over the hill toward Murrieta,” Rock said. “I’d say (flames) are no more than a mile and a half from neighborhoods.”
Beth Maranville, 59, of Murrieta, was standing near a ridge in Oakhurst Estates on Wednesday evening watching the fire grow closer to homes. Maranville had watched the fire when it was farther away near La Cresta and was shocked at how quickly it had chewed through brush.
About 8 p.m., law enforcement officers came through the area and asked Maranville and others to voluntarily evacuate, she said.
“I just saw the lights go out from the house that’s closest,” Maranville said. “They had already wet their house down. It’s not looking good, but we’ve prayed, and we’re going to trust God.”
This is a breaking news story and will be updated as information becomes available.