On a day when utilities turned off power to millions to reduce the chance of a spark and authorities limited where vehicles could park in case a fire broke out, a dump truck driver who hastily offloaded burning trash Thursday on the side of a Riverside County highway started the fire everyone was hoping to avoid.
It’s called a “hot load,” an infrequent but not altogether rare occurrence when a trash truck’s haul somehow ignites and the driver opts to offload the garbage wherever they happen to be in a bid to save the vehicle, said Riverside County Fire Department spokeswoman April Newman.
But the timing could not have been worse.
The burning trash was dumped at Calimesa Boulevard and Sandalwood Drive, where the flames spread into nearby grass before Santa Ana winds pushed them northwest into the Villa Calimesa Mobile Home Park less than 1,000 feet away.
Over the next two hours, the fire moved from mobile home to mobile home, ultimately destroying 74 homes and buildings and damaging 16 others, officials said. Multiple residents were injured in the fire, but details were not immediately available.
One high desert couple, Don and Kimberly Turner, spent Thursday night at an evacuation center, desperate to hear news of Don’s mother, 89-year-old Lois Arvickson. She lived alone at the mobile home park and was on the phone with her son as the fire arrived.
“She just knew the fire was close by, she didn’t know how close,” Don Turner said. “I talked to her, but she was already fairly upset by then because of the smoke. She said she was going to get her purse and get out. I told her to use her MedicAlert and then we got disconnected.”
Kimberly Turner said neighbors reported seeing Arvickson get in her car to leave, but they don’t know what happened next. The Turners saw Arvickson’s home destroyed by fire on TV news coverage and the car still in the driveway.
“We don’t know if she actually went back in there, but we can’t find her. We called all the hospitals,” Kimberly Turner said. “We’re just in limbo right now, and that’s the hardest part, not knowing.”
The fire was at least 500 acres and 10% contained as of 8 p.m. Thursday.
Temperatures hovered in the low 80s when the fire began, but dry air and steady wind have made Southern California a virtual tinderbox ready to burn, experts say.
It was with that danger in mind that Southern California Edison and the state’s other major utilities announced this week that they were conducting precautionary power shutdowns for areas they deemed at risk. Calimesa was on the list but still had power when the fire started, a Southern California Edison official said.
But Thursday’s fire underscores the fact that most fires in the state are caused by humans, either deliberately or accidentally.
Though some of the worst fires in recent years have been sparked by utility equipment, such as most of the 2017 wine country fires and last year’s Camp fire, humans have caused others that were devastating in their own right, such as the Carr fire in Shasta and Trinity counties last year or the biggest of them all — the Mendocino Complex fire.
As a precaution for the conditions, Southern California Edison cut power to nearly 13,000 customers in parts of San Bernardino, Ventura, Kern and Los Angeles counties Thursday as firefighters battled the Sandalwood fire and other growing blazes fueled by the winds.
One fire in Moreno Valley off Reche Canyon Road burned at least 450 acres. Another fire burned near the interchange of the 210 and 15 freeways in Fontana. About 6:30 p.m., a fire broke out four miles south of Banning and blackened 75 acres. About 9 p.m., a small blaze started in Los Angeles County near the Kern County border and raced up a hill with the wind at its back.
Closer to the coast, Ventura County firefighters were scrambling Thursday evening to get ahead of a brush fire burning south in Newbury Park. The fire started just after 7 p.m. and had grown to about 50 acres in less than an hour, officials said. It was threatening a cultural arts center but was otherwise moving away from homes, officials said.
“The wind is in our favor now; [the gusts] are dying down,” said Ventura County Fire Capt. Brian McGrath. “We did quite a bit of back fires.” The fire was in Sycamore Canyon and burning toward the ocean.
The first round of Southern California outages began Thursday morning with fewer than 5,000 customers without electricity. That number had more than doubled by noon as winds picked up across the state.
Santa Ana winds gusting up to 55 mph in the valleys and up to 70 mph in the mountains along with low humidity prompted the National Weather Service on Thursday to issue a red-flag warning for large swaths of the Southland. Forecasters say strong winds are expected to affect Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties through Friday afternoon. Humidity will range from 3% to 10%.
In response, Southern California Edison said power could ultimately be cut off to more than 173,000 customers in parts of nine counties to lower the risk of windblown electrical lines causing a fire. The high winds and dry weather create ideal fire conditions, authorities warn, with the potential to transform a spark into a raging inferno.
Here are the communities covered by the current round of shut-offs:
- Bird Springs
- Horse Canyon
- Sand Canyon
- Twin Oaks
- Agua Dulce and Acton
- Boiling Point
- White Heather
- Rancho Cucamonga
- San Bernardino
- Lytle Creek
- Muscoy, Devore, Glen Helen Regional Park
- Etiwanda, Grapevine Canyon, San Sevaine Flats
- Devil’s Canyon, Serrano Village, Kendall
- Fern Ann Falls, Twin Lakes, Deer Lake Highlands, Chatsworth Lake Manor
- Simi Valley
- Santa Susana
Edison cut power to 65 customers in unincorporated Kern County on Wednesday afternoon as winds gained strength. Power to all but three of those customers was restored hours later after the wind subsided. The utility said it cannot predetermine where or when shut-offs might take place.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power said there were no plans to shut off power to residents in L.A. because the city is highly urbanized, with fewer wildfire-prone areas and an “extensive fire-suppression infrastructure.”
But the Los Angeles Police Department was planning to remove some homeless people from areas with high fire risks. The city this year passed an ordinance that streamlines the process of clearing homeless camps during fire danger periods. Authorities did not provide the locations of the homeless sweeps.
The Bear Valley Electric Service, which serves Big Bear Valley, announced that it may also cut power to customers because of extreme fire conditions in the region. The utility did not provide a specific number of customers that would be affected by a shut-off but said the Fawnskin, Boulder Bay, Moonridge, Erwin Lake and Lake Williams areas could be affected.
Bear Valley Electric Service “crews will monitor real time weather stations and minimize the outages to just those periods where weather conditions warrant power shut-off for public safety. Additionally, because Bear Valley Electric imports power through transmission lines operated by Southern California Edison, the entire Big Bear Valley could also be affected if Edison proactively shuts down parts of its grid,” the utility wrote in a statement.
In San Diego County, San Diego Gas & Electric Co. officials say the utility might also have to temporarily shut off power to about 30,000 customers beginning Thursday.
The announcements of additional power cuts come on the heels of the widespread Pacific Gas & Electric Co. blackout, which has left more than a million people in Northern California without power. Outages in that region could last for days as the utility works to check power lines and make necessary repairs after the wind subsides.
Officials suggest Californians across the state prepare for possible power outages. The Red Cross recommends creating an evacuation plan for your home and having an emergency preparedness kit for any situation — including unexpected power outages. Your kit should include:
- A gallon of water per day per person
- Enough food for two weeks
- A flashlight
- A hand-cranked or battery-powered radio
- A first-aid kit
- Emergency contact information
- A map of your area
Extra cash will come in handy too, because credit card processing systems and ATMs are unlikely to function during a power outage, said Cynthia Shaw, a Red Cross spokeswoman.
Edison outages may occur in the following areas:
Los Angeles County (about 49,439 customers)
- La Cañada Flintridge
- San Fernando
- Santa Clarita
- Unincorporated areas including Acton, Agua Dulce, Boiling Point, White Heather, Sunland, Tujunga, La Crescenta, Montrose, Wildwood, Canyon Country, Newhall, Forest Park, Sleepy Valley, Del Valle, Leona Valley, Plum Canyon, Alpine, Merrie Dell, Indian Springs, Juniper Hills, Valencia, Stevenson Ranch, Mt. Wilson, Valyermo, Paradise Springs, Humphreys, Placerita Canyon State Park, Littlerock, Pearblossom, Quartz Hill, Lake Hughes, Green Valley, Elizabeth Lake, Sylmar, Portal Ridge, Three Points, Upper Big Tujunga Canyon, and near Antelope Valley and areas of Chatsworth and Sylmar
San Bernardino County (about 40,978 customers)
- Big Bear
- Rancho Cucamonga
- San Bernardino
- Yucca Valley
- Unincorporated areas including the communities of Doble and Upper Holcomb Valley, Cajon Pass, Devore, Etiwanda, Lucerne Valley, Lytle Creek, Running Springs, Lake Arrowhead, Cedar Pines Park, Valley of Enchantment, Crestline, Valley View Park, Joshua Tree, Homestead Valley, Oak Hills, Muscoy, Green Valley Lake, Morongo Valley and areas near Yucca Valley
Ventura County (about 23,139 customers)
- Simi Valley
- Santa Rosa Valley
- Unincorporated areas including Sespe, Oak Village, north of Moorpark, Piru, Elkins Ranch Golf Course, Leesdale, north Fillmore, Santa Susana, Stauffer, Sycamore Canyon, Solromar, areas near Piru and communities along Telegraph Road in the Ventura-Santa Paula area
Riverside County (about 21,366 customers)
- San Jacinto
- Moreno Valley
- Unincorporated Riverside County, including the communities of Whitewater and Bonnie Bell, Banning Pass, Cabazon, Owl, portions of Desert Hills Outlet Mall, North Palm Springs, Gilman Hot Springs, Lakeview, Nuevo, Mons, Mead Valley, Eden Hot Springs, Mountain Center, Good Hope and near Beaumont and Banning
Orange County (about 7,250 customers)
- Rancho Santa Margarita
- Unincorporated areas including North Tustin
Kern County (about 19,313 customers)
- Unincorporated areas including Frazier Park, Lake of the Woods, Pine Mountain Club, Bodfish, Kernville, Wofford Heights, Lake Isabella, Camp Owens, Lebec, Bear Valley Springs, Stallion Springs, Keene, Golden Hills, Sand Canyon, Alpine Forest, Manolith, Weldon, Bella Vista, Monolith, Onyx, Canebrake and areas of Walker Basin and Kernville
Mono County (about 13,963 customers)
- Mammoth Lakes
- Unincorporated areas near Bishop, including the community of Paradise and portions of Swall Meadows, Sunny Slopes, Mammoth Lakes (Trails, Core, North, Slopes), June Lake Village, Loop, Crestview, Mono Lake, Mono City, North Conway, Willow Springs, Bridgeport, Old Mammoth, Mammoth Lakes Basin, Lee Vining, Lee Vining Canyon, Falls Creek Tract and Bridgeport Valley to Twin Lakes
Inyo County (about 131 customers)
- Unincorporated areas near Bishop, including Aspendell and Round Valley
Tulare County (about 108 customers)
- Unincorporated areas including Fairview and Johnsondale
Times staff writers Leila Miller and Richard Winton contributed to this report.