Deadly 4,500-acre fire near Hemet began near reported ‘circuit activity’ by Edison
The billowing smoke over the ridge quickly turned to flames, and Jeremy Fields and his family had scant minutes to leave their ranch home.
He and his wife gathered what they could — clothes, their son’s inhalers, insurance papers — and ran out to escape the flames Monday, slipping on pink fire retardant on the ground. There was no time to move their animals, so they let loose their horses, chickens and a pet goat, hoping they’d survive on their own.
“If we wouldn’t have left the second we left, we would have been blocked in,” Fields said.
By Tuesday evening, the Fairview fire near Hemet had burned through 4,500 acres and fire officials continued to expand evacuation orders as the blaze threatened about 3,500 structures.
At least seven structures were destroyed and several more were damaged, according to the Riverside County Fire Department.
Two residents in Avery Canyon were killed while trying to flee, officials said. A third was injured.
The cause of the fire remained unknown, but Southern California Edison reported “circuit activity” about the same time the first flames were reported at 3:37 p.m., the utility company said.
It’s unclear what the circuit activity was or whether Edison’s equipment played a role in starting the fire. Edison reported the incident Monday evening with the Public Utilities Commission as the Fairview fire quickly spread.
“Our thoughts are with those who have been affected by the Fairview fire, especially those who have lost loved ones and suffered injuries,” said David Eisenhauer, a spokesperson for Edison. “Our information reflects circuit activity occurring close in time to the reported time of the fire.”
The California Independent System Operator had issued a level 3 alert, a sign that the grid couldn’t meet the state’s electrical needs.
Eisenhauer declined to elaborate on what the activity was.
“With safety as our No. 1 priority, we continue to make progress on our wildfire mitigation efforts through grid hardening, situational awareness and enhanced operational practices,” he said.
A Cal Fire spokesperson said the cause of the fire is still under investigation. The agency will take Edison’s report into account.
The fire tore through 2,000 acres Monday and continued to grow Tuesday, forcing evacuation orders as it burned near homes. By Tuesday evening, it remained 5% contained.
Winds pushed the fire west into Avery Canyon on Monday, a surprising development for firefighters who said flames burned in the opposite direction from what fire models and history predicted. Instead, high pressure in the area had winds sweeping the canyon from the east, pushing flames west into the canyon and overtaking the three residents who were killed or injured trying to escape.
Fields said fire tornadoes swirled around his family as they drove out Monday. Deer and horses ran loose, crossing in front of them.
On Tuesday, Fields and his family were waiting at the Tahquitz High School gymnasium, which was turned into a Red Cross shelter.
For the record:
8:49 p.m. Sept. 6, 2022A previous version of this story attributed a quote to Jeremy Fields that should have been attributed to his wife, Gladys Nicomedez.
“I’m just trying to keep it together,” said Gladys Nicomedez, Fields’ wife.
Their family was among the last to leave Avery Canyon, Fields said.
They moved into the neighborhood just north of Hemet from Riverside in 2020, seeking more space and a ranch-style life during the pandemic’s earlier months, said Fields, a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu who owns 10th Planet gyms throughout Southern California.
Even then, a blaze like the Fairview fire felt inevitable.
“We live in this dry canyon that hasn’t burned for 23 years — it was prone to burn,” Fields said. “We knew this was going to happen.”
Since moving, they haven’t been able to get insurance for their property due to the high fire risk, a common challenge for their neighbors.
Fields said he had noticed smoke coming from over the ridge Monday, but warnings to leave didn’t come until there were only minutes left.
Without insurance, Fields said, he felt compelled to stay longer, trying to do what he could to protect his family’s property. They made the decision to leave as soon as he saw nearby homes explode into flames.
“It was the worst evacuation plan ever,” Fields said. “They didn’t even know what to do. I mean, they’re just shoving people down the road, screaming at us. Half of us neighbors wanted to stay, which we luckily didn’t.”
The two people who died appeared to be attempting to flee before being overcome by the fire as it tore through the canyon, officials said.
It is unclear whether the third person, who officials said was in the same area, was related to the two victims or was from the same household. No other fatalities or injuries were reported as of Tuesday morning.
Details on why the residents were unable to escape were unclear, and sheriff’s officials said the burn area was still too hot Tuesday for investigators to comb through the scene to find out what happened.
Officials said the fire’s atypical burn pattern was a major concern, but forecasting showed the wind was expected to reverse 180 degrees on Tuesday, essentially leading the fire to backtrack in the opposite direction.
Fire teams attacked the fire from both the ground and the air Tuesday, including several air tankers and helicopters.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Josh Janssen, incident commander for the fire overnight, said fire officials have been able to get additional resources to fight the fire. According to Cal Fire, 286 firefighters were on the ground, including 38 engine companies and one water tender.
California is experiencing its most severe heat wave this year, leading to elevated fire risks because of the high temperatures, low humidity and severely dry vegetation. Scorching temperatures, with some areas hitting triple digits and breaking records, are expected to last through Thursday and have raised concerns over public health and power outages.
On Tuesday evening, California’s energy grid operator issued its highest-level emergency alert, a sign that the grid could not meet the state’s electrical needs and was on the verge of rolling blackouts.
As the prolonged heat wave intensifies, officials are pleading with Californians to voluntarily reduce energy consumption or face power outages.
In Hemet, temperatures hit 107 degrees Tuesday, with wind gusts up to 20 miles per hour.
Sgt. Brandi Swan with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said that schools in Hemet Unified School District remain closed because of the fire. Officials also reported that unrelated weather caused a power outage in Hemet.
About 3,500 homes were under evacuation orders Tuesday for the area south of Stetson Avenue, north of Cactus Valley Road, west of Bautista Canyon and east of State Street. Officials also reported additional road closures in the area.
By Tuesday afternoon, officials had expanded evacuation orders to include Bautista Canyon Road between Stetson Road and Two Streams trailhead. The area had been previously under a warning, but residents were asked to leave the area by 2:30 p.m.
Residents within Thomas Mountain Ridge South, Cactus Valley Road, Bautista Canyon Road and the forest boundary were also ordered to evacuate the area Tuesday evening.
It was unclear when evacuation orders would be lifted, or if residents could return to their homes.
A row of commercial buildings in Boyle Heights caught fire Monday afternoon.
The fire also prompted the Eastern Municipal Water District to issue a boil-water notice to some of the residents in the area. According to the agency, the notice affects about 50 homes east of Hemet along Polly Butte Road and east of Gibbel Road.
Residents in that area were advised not to drink or use tap water for cooking unless it was boiled for at least one minute to avoid stomach and intestinal illness.
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