Fierce winds that whipped up early Thursday sparked new fires across Southern California, including a destructive blaze that tore into neighborhoods in north San Bernardino, consuming homes and forcing residents to evacuate before dawn.
The Hillside fire erupted about 1:40 a.m. above San Bernardino near Highway 18 at Lower Waterman Canyon and took off, quickly burning downhill into neighborhoods as authorities rushed to awaken and evacuate residents. The blaze has consumed 200 acres and has burned six homes, said San Bernardino County Firefighter Chris Prater.
The fast-moving fire prompted mandatory evacuation orders for roughly 1,300 residents of about 500 homes north of 50th Street, west of Highway 18 and east of Mayfield Avenue.
One firefighter was hospitalized for smoke inhalation, but no other injuries were reported.
As police and firefighters were evacuating neighborhoods early Thursday, some residents refused to leave.
“Stay vigilant, please. You don’t see the wind blowing really hard right now where we’re at, but you go up on the hills and it’s very erratic,” said Kathleen Opliger, incident commander for the Fire Department. “The fire has moved so fast ... that if folks don’t evacuate when we ask them to, it’ll be very difficult to get them out when the fire is moving toward homes.”
By late morning firefighters had knocked down active flames burning in the area and had begun to gain control of the blaze. The cause of the fire, which was 50% contained by 1 p.m., is under investigation. However, fire officials said they’ve determined there are no power lines in the area where they determined the blaze began.
Video footage from the scene taken early Thursday showed waves of embers flying onto residential streets, igniting palm trees and setting homes ablaze. Firefighters sprayed water on two homes burning on Saturn Court, but they appeared to sustain significant damage.
Tony Marzullo, 59, said screams from his neighbor across the street jolted him awake about 2 a.m.
“Fire! Fire!” she yelled.
Outside, the hillsides were burning, winds were gusting and yards were catching fire as embers landed. Marzullo, his son and son-in-law immediately got to work. They helped neighbors from their homes and drove cars sitting in driveways to a nearby church after people had fled. They grabbed garden hoses and tried to douse whatever flames they could.
“Those winds were treacherous,” Marzullo said. “The winds here blow in every direction.”
The winds that sweep through San Bernardino are as familiar as the hillsides that are a backdrop for more than a dozen homes along Viento Way, named after the Spanish word for “wind.”
Before dawn, the gusts were so powerful that water sprayed from hoses was instantly blown into a fine mist that was nearly useless against the raging flames.
Marzullo and his sons were able to put down some flames before a palm caught fire and two of his neighbors’ houses caught fire. Standing in his driveway, he watched the smoke rising from the charred remains of one of the homes, where only a chimney remained standing. Still, firefighters were able to save most of houses on the street.
The winds, the chaos of a wildfire and the loss of property were a familiar experience for Marzullo. In the 1980s, he lost his home to the Panorama fire, which destroyed 310 homes and burned 28,000 acres in San Bernardino County.
This time, his house was safe. Any home destroyed is never a good feeling, he said, but the neighborhood is still standing.
“Overall, it turned out OK,” he said.
Nearby, Rhonda Vigneux stood outside her single-story home — arms crossed to keep warm — gazing at firetrucks parked in the street. Her home was still standing.
“I’m so grateful, but sad for our next-door neighbor,” the 52-year-old said, pointing where a wooden home had stood hours before. “They’re such nice people. The neighbor was the one who woke us up.”
Shortly after 2 a.m., Vigneux said she heard banging on the front window of her home and the panicked sound of her neighbor yelling: “There’s a fire, there’s a fire! It’s in your backyard!”
Massive flames greeted Vigneux and her boyfriend, Victor Thome, 52, when they ran to the sliding doors in the back of their house. They ran around trying to decide what valuables to grab.
Thome grabbed a hose and started spraying down the house as thick smoke choked the neighborhood. He stayed to protect their residence as Vigneux evacuated with their two dogs. Hours later, she returned to survey the damage. In the backyard, the bean-shaped pool was filled with blackened remnants from the fire: ash, charred leaves and burned pieces of wood. The wooden fence was gone, having been quickly consumed in the flames.
“I’m just shocked,” Vigneux said. “It happened so fast.”
At the evacuation center at Pacific High School early Thursday, about 10 people sat on cots lined up inside the gym waiting for news about the fire. A few children in pajamas dribbled basketballs nearby.
Linda Serafin, 34, and her family were among the first to arrive shortly after 3 a.m. after they fled from their home on 50th Street when the fire roared into nearby neighborhoods. Orange flames were visible from her backyard, and the smell of smoke hung in the air.
They grabbed items they had packed in preparation for the Old Water fire, which broke out in the area last week, as well as important documents, food, clothes and blankets and loaded them into their car. Schools were still open, but Serafin said she wanted her children close for the day.
It’s a “mother’s precaution,” she said.
More than 450 firefighters, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft were working to protect homes and get control of the raging blaze, despite intense winds of 20-40 mph with gusts up to 70 mph, officials said.
“The wind has been the biggest factor in the fire spread,” Prater said.
Meanwhile, a blaze that broke out about 12:40 a.m. at Rancho Jurupa Park in Jurupa Valley, dubbed the 46 fire, has burned 300 acres and forced mandatory evacuations. The fire has damaged at least two homes, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The two blazes were among more than two dozen fires that were sparked in the past two days by an extreme Santa Ana wind event, creating dangerous fire conditions that will batter Southern California through late Thursday.
The air will continue to be dry through the day, and the winds, while tapering off, will still be strong, expected to gust between 40 and 60 mph. The fire area in San Bernardino is expecting single-digit humidity levels and sustained winds of 30-40 mph, according to the National Weather Service.
Intense winds projected to last through the day prompted Southern California Edison to shut off power to nearly 73,000 customers in six counties, including San Bernardino near where the Hillside fire is burning.
The utility is monitoring 223,000 other customers across the state for possible shut-offs later in the day as the winds continue.
Times staff writer Alex Wigglesworth contributed to this report.