Deadly wildfire near Hemet doubles in size, closes in on 20,000 acres
Kenneth Baptista and his three children were at a friend’s house on Labor Day to go swimming when they looked up and saw black smoke.
It was coming from near Baptista’s Hemet house.
The family headed home, but when they got there, they found the area blocked off by authorities.
“They evacuated all the homes up there,” Baptista said.
Baptista, 61, and his kids weren’t allowed to return to their trailer on Cactus Valley Road and had to leave their two cats behind. They had only the clothes on their backs and a few towels when they drove to Tahquitz High School in Hemet, where an evacuation center had been set up for displaced residents.
The Fairview fire near Hemet, which has killed two people, is now 19,377 acres after exploding in size since igniting Monday, forcing officials to continue expanding evacuation orders as the flames moved dangerously close to homes. At least seven structures have been destroyed, according to the Hemet Fire Department.
The blaze stubbornly outpaced firefighters’ efforts to contain its spread as it closed in on 20,000 acres by 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, nearly doubling in size since the last update about six hours earlier. It remained at 5% containment as it continued to burn past fire lines, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“Unfortunately the fire continued to outpace our efforts and burned actively on all flanks,” Cal Fire Chief Josh Janssen said during a Wednesday morning news conference. “It was clear that the fire was outpacing our air and ground resources.”
Riverside County proclaimed a local emergency Wednesday, a move that could make it eligible for state and federal assistance for damages and costs associated with the fire.
As the state’s wildfire death toll rises to nine, some are urging a new focus on alert systems.
Since the evacuation center at Tahquitz High opened, 50 to 60 people have checked in, American Red Cross shelter manager David Foust said. About 17 people remained at the school Wednesday.
“We’re here for as long as we’re needed, however long that may be,” Foust said. “If evacuation areas expand to more urban areas, we have that capacity to increase based on the demand.”
More than 280 firefighters continued to toil Wednesday in triple-digit heat. According to the National Weather Service, temperatures reached a high of 106 degrees. Thursday is not likely to bring a respite for firefighters, with a forecast high of 103.
On Friday, there is a chance of showers in the fire area, which could help firefighters extinguish flames but could also trigger dangerous mudflows in areas that have been burned.
“It creates a whole new set of complications in terms of potential flooding,” said Hemet Fire Chief Eddie Sell. “When fires ravage vegetation, the water just runs off and almost creates a mudslide effect rather than penetrating into the vegetation and the ground.”
Officials are erring on the side of caution with evacuation orders due to the gusty winds, hot temperatures and extreme fire conditions, said Hemet Fire Battalion Chief Greg Lloyd.
“We’re all on the same page,” he said. “People want to be back in their homes as quickly as possible, and we want people back in their homes as quickly as possible. The worst-case scenario is we don’t want to evacuate people twice.”
Baptista said he was grateful for the Red Cross and for the Animal Control workers who rescued his cats.
“It’s a blessing to have people help,” he said. “Some of these people I believe really care.”
After his wife died in December giving birth to their son, Baptista said it would be devastating if he lost family photos, his wife’s ashes and his trailer because he would no longer be able to raise his kids.
“CPS took my kids for a little while, but I got them back,” he said. “If I don’t have a trailer, I lose my kids. I have no home for them. That would be the worst for them.”
Two people who appeared to be trying to flee the fire were found dead inside a vehicle in the 42400 block of Avery Canyon Road in eastern Hemet, said Riverside County Sheriff’s Sgt. Brandi Swan. They have not yet been identified because of the condition of their remains, Swan said.
A female family member of the victims was also found “severely burned” outside the vehicle, was taken to a hospital and is expected to survive, Swan said. Her identity has also not been released.
It’s unclear whether Edison’s equipment played a role in the blaze and what the circuit activity was. Edison reported the incident Monday night to the California Public Utilities Commission.
All schools in the Hemet Unified School District remained closed Wednesday, said Shane Reichardt of the Riverside County Emergency Management Department.
Officials urged residents near the fire to be prepared to evacuate.
“We want residents to have a plan and to prepare a ‘go-bag’ should they be asked to evacuate,” Reichardt said.
Times staff writer Gregory Yee contributed to this report.
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