Hundreds of residents who had been forced from their homes days earlier by a fast-moving brush fire that has charred 2,000 acres in the hillsides near Murrieta were allowed to return home Friday.
Nearly 900 firefighters have been assigned to the Tenaja fire in Riverside County, which erupted about 4 p.m. Wednesday near Tenaja and Clinton Keith roads on a day marked by thunderstorms in the region, officials said.
The decision to reduce evacuation orders to warnings comes after firefighters — aided by lower temperatures and increased humidity — made significant progress on the blaze overnight. The wildfire was 25% contained Friday evening, said Capt. Fernando Herrera, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Evacuation orders had been in place since Thursday for homes along Montanya, Botanica and Belcara places and Lone Oak Way in Murietta. A day earlier, officials ordered evacuations of houses along the Trails Circle in La Cresta and Copper Canyon, as well as the Santa Rosa Plateau visitor center on Clinton Keith Road.
“Things are looking a lot better this morning,” Herrera said. “People can return to their homes, but they need to be ready at a moments notice to evacuate again if the need should arise.”
On Wednesday and Thursday, the fire was most active in the midafternoon. Forecasters and fire officials said the same could happen Friday as it was expected to be another hot, somewhat dry day, with humidity at about 30% and gusts up to 15 mph in the late morning and afternoon.
Firefighters had begun to get a handle on the blaze by early Thursday, but then in the afternoon gusting winds pushed flames across fire breaks and sent them racing down the ridge. The flames burned up to a creek area at the base of the Copper Canyon development and threatened homes, but firefighters were able to beat them back. Two homes received a small amount of cosmetic damage, Herrera said.
“We had our helicopters making drops, but the wind itself was carrying the fire in a momentum that was very fast and very intense,” he said. “The water drops can slow it down, but it won’t put it off.”
Video from the fire shows firefighters going toe to toe with the raging inferno while set up in the backyard of a home overlooking a hill.
One firefighter suffered a non-life-threatening injury in the blaze. The cause of the fire has not been determined.
Campuses in the Murrieta Valley Unified School District, Perris Union School District, Romoland School District and Menifee School District were closed Friday because of the fire and poor air quality in the region.
The blaze erupted toward the end of a remarkably calm summer in terms of wildfires.
After two years of devastating wildfires that burned more than 1.8 million acres in 2018 and 1.2 million acres in 2017, as of Aug. 18, only 51,079 acres had burned this year across state and federal lands in California.
Late spring rains, cooler summer temperatures and fewer extreme wind events, among other factors, have combined to help keep the state from burning uncontrollably, experts say.
But weary fire officials know that can change at any moment — all it takes is an intense wind event or a prolonged heat wave and then a spark.
Staff writer Alex Wigglesworth contributed to this report