A fast-moving fire swept toward the mountain community of Idyllwild on Wednesday, burning 4,700 acres and five residential structures while threatening hundreds of homes.
The Cranston fire began about noon and spread rapidly, San Bernardino National Forest officials said. It has forced evacuations of more than 2,100 homes and is sending a massive tower of smoke rising over the San Jacinto Mountains. By 10:15 p.m. Wednesday, it was 5% contained.
Authorities said a suspected arsonist set multiple fires — including the Cranston fire— in Riverside County on Wednesday. The fires burned in southwest Riverside County and on federal land along State Highway 74 in the San Bernardino National Forest.
Brandon N. McGlover, 32, of Temecula was booked on suspicion of five counts of arson to wild land, according to the San Bernardino National Forest officials.
Witnesses described a vehicle possibly involved in starting the fire to authorities, California Highway Patrol spokesman Darren Meyer said. Authorities spotted a vehicle matching the description about 12:30 p.m. at the intersection of Newport and State roads south of Hemet. Hemet police officers pulled the vehicle over for an enforcement stop, Meyer said.
About noon, Joe Achtner, 65, noticed the sky above his Idyllwild home getting dark and flakes of ash falling in his yard. He drove for about a quarter-mile and saw flames cresting a nearby hillside, threatening homes in his neighborhood of 30 years.
By the time he and his family loaded up their trucks with their three dogs and suitcases full of clothes, sheriff’s deputies had swarmed the area, ordering evacuations.
“It came up on us really, really quickly. Within a half-hour, the whole town was overwhelmed with flames,” Achtner said. “This one seemed to come up on us without any notice at all. And all of a sudden, it was right there — and it was huge.”
While Achtner lives in Idyllwild permanently, many of his neighbors live there only part time and their homes were empty.
“I just pray for the town. We live in a beautiful town,” he said. “The whole the town is the trees and the town is the people and it’s all jeopardized right now.”
Tamara Friemoth, 56, and her husband, Steve, own the Chevron Idyllwild Garage on State Route 243. She was working at the gas station and auto shop when she heard about the evacuation.
She rushed home, grabbed some clothes and family heirlooms, and ran back to the Chevron, where she watched the fire wrap around the mountaintops in front of the gas station.
Soon, she would hear that houses about a block from her own had burned, including the home of one of her mechanics.
“It’s the scariest feeling you can have because you’re helpless,” she said. “But you move forward and do what you can do.”
An evacuation center has been set up at Banning High School.
Mandatory evacuations were expanded to include residents in Idyllwild, Pine Cove, Fern Valley, McGaugh Road and McCall Park Road.
“Leave immediately,” forest officials urged in a tweet.
Roads are closed at Highway 74 from Cranston Fire Station to Lake Hemet and Highway 243 between Pine Cove and Mountain Center.
The fire broke out on a day of extreme heat across Southern California and as the deadly Ferguson fire continued to rage west of Yosemite.
The Ferguson fire grew to more than 41,500 acres as of late Wednesday and was 26% contained. At its closest point, the fire is two miles from the park, Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said.
Visitors were given until noon to evacuate Yosemite Valley, the heart of the 1,200-square-mile park. Officials have also closed Highway 41, the north-south artery that carries travelers from Southern California to Yosemite, and Glacier Point Road.
A stream of cars, campers and trailers flowed out of the park in the morning as the blaze inched closer. Heavy smoke from the blaze has blanketed the valley and created air quality conditions worse than in Beijing, China’s heavily polluted capital, Gediman said.
“With this hot, dry weather pattern, you just got the smoke sitting here,” he said. “The air quality fluctuates throughout the day but it’s really poor midday — noon to 6 p.m.”
Officials have been handing out high-grade filtration masks and set up “clean air” centers around the park where employees and visitors can get a break from the smoke-filled air, Gediman said. Still, after days in the smoke, he said his voice has become raspy and he feels a dryness in his throat.
On Tuesday night, officials taped evacuation notices on hotel doors and campers. Even before the order went out, however, visitors had begun packing up when they saw dark clouds of smoke filling the sky.
Forecasters said temperatures Wednesday were expected to break records. At UCLA, a predicted high of 96 degrees would beat the 1943 record of 91; in Burbank, a forecast of 103 degrees would beat the record of 101; and in Palmdale, the forecast of 110 degrees would beat a 1975 record of 109.
Downtown Los Angeles could hit a sizzling 97 degrees, but that won’t best the record of 109, which was set in 1891, forecasters said.
The blistering weather comes courtesy of a “heat dome” that settled over the desert Southwest this week and has shifted gradually toward Southern California. Though the coasts have been relatively cooler than inland areas, humid conditions have helped equalize the misery.
The notoriously sweltering towns of Thermal, Palm Springs and Borrego all broke heat records Tuesday with temperatures reaching 122, 121 and 118 degrees, respectively. They’re expected to reach similar temperatures Wednesday before seeing a slight decrease Thursday.