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Fast-moving South fire near Fontana grows to 900 acres, destroys at least 4 homes

Tim Handman surveys damage to his property caused by the fast-moving South fire.
Tim Handman surveys damage to his property caused by the fast-moving South fire, which swept through lower Lytle Creek leaving structures and motor vehicles charred on Wednesday.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The fast-moving South fire in the Lytle Creek area north of Fontana grew to 900 acres by Thursday night as hundreds of firefighters continued to battle the blaze in hot, windy conditions.

Crews worked overnight fighting the fire, which began around 1:30 p.m. Wednesday on Lytle Creek Road, about a mile north of Duncan Canyon Road and ballooned to 700 acres in less than a day, according to fire officials.

Flames burned at least four homes and at least 14 outbuildings, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The fire was 10% contained as of Thursday night, state fire officials said.

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About 1,000 people remained displaced Thursday amid standing evacuation orders, according to officials with the San Bernardino National Forest.

“The fire, which is burning in grass and chaparral, has burned over a section of Lytle Creek, one of the drinking water sources for local cities,” forest officials said. “A post-fire analysis will later examine the fire’s effects on the landscape and watershed.”

Roughly 600 structures are still threatened by the blaze, which was burning unchecked in rugged terrain, according to state fire officials.

Gusty winds fanned the flames through bone-dry fuels.

A firefighter hoses down the smoking hulk of a shipping container
San Bernardino County firefighter Mathew Safdeye takes care of a smoldering container in Lower Lytle Creek.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“The fire quickly spread through dry vegetation,” said Battalion Chief Mike McClintock, a spokesman for the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District, which responded to the blaze along with Cal Fire and San Bernardino National Forest firefighters.

Around 4 p.m. Thursday, three small, separate fires started along Lytle Creek Road between Duncan Canyon Road and Interstate 15, according to National Forest officials.

Authorities diverted resources from the South fire to contain and knock down the small fires, which were a combined 2 to 3 acres, forest officials said. What caused the spot fires is under investigation.

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Some area residents were caught off guard.

“They left their homes to go run errands, and all of a sudden the roads are closed and they can’t get back in,” said Ken Riegler, a shelter supervisor with the American Red Cross.

The South fire quickly spread to 500 acres in San Bernardino County on Wednesday, burning structures and prompting evacuations.

Evacuation orders are in place for all residents of Lytle Creek Road north and south of the ranger station, west of Sierra Avenue, north of the 15 Freeway and east of Duncan Canyon Road, according to the latest incident report.

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San Bernardino County firefighter Mathew Safdeye douses hot spots from the South fire in Lower Lytle Creek.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Authorities issued evacuation warnings for areas north of Glen Helen Parkway, east of the intersection of Sierra Avenue and Lytle Creek Road and west of the 15 Freeway. On- and offramps to I-15 have reopened in the area, according to the California Department of Transportation. State Route 138 is open, but there is no access to Lone Pine Canyon Road.

About 38 people on Thursday were staying at an evacuation center set up by the Red Cross at the Jessie Turner Health and Fitness Community Center in Fontana, Riegler said.

“Most people are taken aback,” he said.

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Behind a partition in the center’s ballroom, cots were spread out, although many remained empty.

Some evacuees fled with pets, which the center doesn’t allow, Riegler said. Others, attempting to socially distance amid the ongoing pandemic, don’t feel comfortable sleeping inside.

“I don’t blame them,” Riegler said. “It’s hard.”

Firefighters were bracing for high temperatures and low relative humidity — both conditions known to spur fire activity, Cal Fire officials said. Crews could face punishing triple-digit heat, as Fontana was forecast to reach 101 degrees Thursday and San Bernardino a scorching 104.

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Besides the soaring temperatures, officials at an operational briefing Thursday morning warned first responders of minimal resources at their disposal, which could complicate firefighting efforts.

A dozen large wildfires in Northern California — including the fast-growing Caldor fire, which has torn through El Dorado County and is approaching South Lake Tahoe — are diverting resources.

Bennett Milloy, a public information officer for Cal Fire, said fire departments across the state are being spread thin as crews, engines and aircraft are being used to battle simultaneous blazes.

“It’s going to be a challenge for our firefighters,” Milloy said. “It’s a difficult situation. It’s arduous work.”

Hand crews have been the most needed and hardest to find across the state, he said.

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Rugged and steep terrain in the canyons where the South fire is burning has also left crews in need of more four-wheel-drive fire engines, a resource already in high demand during fire season.

Milloy said Cal Fire will have to make do with what’s available, adding, “There’s a lot of work to be done.”


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