Lisa Gregory has kept a close eye on the weather since fleeing her home in the woods as a wildfire advanced in Southern California. She doesn’t know when she can return or whether her house is still standing.
The uncertainty “is an awful feeling,” Gregory said as she lounged in a lawn chair under a tree outside an evacuation center.
Firefighters made major gains Thursday against the wildfire that broke out Tuesday in the mountains and desert 60 miles east of Los Angeles. Driven by wind, the fire chewed through tall grasses and drought-parched shrubs, torching an unknown number of homes and vehicles.
The blaze covering nearly 58 square miles was 26 percent contained by early Friday, and plans were in the works to begin demobilizing some of the nearly 1,600 firefighters by afternoon.
“Crews really buttoned up some areas. But the possibility is still there for explosive growth,” fire spokesman Brad Pitassi said.
That concern was especially focused on an area southeast of the mountain town of Wrightwood, where old-growth brush and trees haven’t burned in 70 years, fire behavior analyst Brendan Ripley said.
Elsewhere, the fire’s growth was limited because the land had become a moonscape.
“The fire burned so intensely that there’s no fuels left for it to move again,” Pitassi said.
A small number of evacuees have been allowed to return home, but Pitassi could not say when all evacuations would be lifted. Some 82,000 residents were under evacuation orders at the height of the fire.
Long-awaited damage assessments were expected to be released Friday afternoon, he said.
Charmy Hartinger said it has been a “roller coaster” since she got off work and realized she couldn’t go home. After staying in a hotel with her sister, she arrived at the evacuation center to join her neighbor.
“I just want to know if I have a house,” she said.
Meanwhile, a new fire broke out in rural Santa Barbara County, quickly surging to about 600 acres and prompting the evacuation of a pair of campgrounds.
In the southern Sierra Nevada, another blaze feeding on dense timber in Sequoia National Forest exploded to nearly 15 square miles. Tiny hamlets in Kern and Tulare counties were evacuated.
During five years of drought, California’s wildlands have seen a continuous streak of destructive and sometimes deadly fires. No deaths have been reported in the latest fire, but crews assessing property damage were using cadaver dogs during searches.
The dry vegetation is like firewood, said fire information officer Sean Collins.
“It burns that much quicker, that much hotter. The rate of travel is extremely fast,” he said.
Wildfires across the country in recent years have grown more ferocious and expensive to fight.
Last year’s fire season set a record with more than 15,625 square miles of land charred. It was also the costliest on record, with $2.1 billion spent to fight fires from Alaska to Florida.
Experts have blamed several factors, including rising temperatures that more quickly dry out forests and vegetation. Decades of aggressively knocking down small fires also have led to the buildup of flammable fuel. On top of that, more people are moving into fire-prone regions, complicating firefighting efforts.
The Southern California fire unleashed its initial fury on a semi-rural landscape dotted with small ranches and homes in Cajon Pass and on the edge of the Mojave Desert before climbing the mountains.
Travel was returning to normal in the pass – a major corridor for trucking, rail and commuter traffic – after Interstate 15 was fully reopened.
In mountains north of San Francisco, a six-square-mile blaze was 55 percent contained after destroying at least 268 structures, including 175 homes and eight businesses, in the working-class community of Lower Lake.