As a nearly 30,000-acre wildfire burned near Hemet on Friday, officials were optimistic that Tropical Storm Kay had not intensified the blaze, as many worried it could, but instead brought some relief.
Fearing the worst from intense winds and lightning, officials ordered more evacuations late Thursday in advance of the storm.
For the record:
3:22 pm Sep 9, 2022An earlier version of this article stated the Fairview fire had grown to be the largest of the season in California. The McKinney fire in Siskiyou County, which burned over 60,000 acres, is this year’s largest wildfire.
But by Friday evening, officials said the “much-needed precipitation” from Kay had indeed slowed the spread of the Fairview fire, allowing them to boost containment from 5% to 40% and reduce some evacuation orders to warnings, though cautioning that the situation remained “dynamic.”
They remained concerned that the storm system could create flash floods, debris flows and other hazards.
“The concern we have is as we get more moisture from Kay itself, it could transition into thunderstorms, and thunderstorms would be too much rain too quick,” said Matt Mehle, an incident meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Flash flood and high wind warnings were in effect through Friday evening for much of the area near the wildfire, which had displaced more than 20,000 people and killed at least two. A flood watch for much of the same region was extended until midnight Saturday.
“It’s super dynamic,” said Marco Rodriguez, a public information officer with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, one of the crews assisting in Riverside County. “In the last six hours, we went from dry, heavy brush to damp and super wet conditions.”
But he warned that the fire is still “burning really hot,” making it hard to tell how much the afternoon rain would affect the flames in one of California’s largest blazes of the year.
Tropical Storm Kay was churning along the northern coast of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula Friday evening, about 130 miles off the coast of San Diego. The system brought intense rain and winds topping 100 mph to some parts of San Diego, sparking concerns about coastal flooding in Los Angeles County and flash flooding more inland.
“I’ve been on wildfires where we’ve had hail, I’ve been on wildfires where we’ve had snow and we’ve had rain before,” Mehle said, “but out of my 30-plus wildfires, I’ I’ve never been on one where I’ve been dealing with a tropical storm as close as we are to this.”
Mehle said the probability of a flash flood is low, but would most likely occur within a 12-hour window from Friday night into Saturday morning. He said officials have been briefed for that possibility because any flash flooding would be “very high impact.”
Almost 24,000 people from Hemet to Temecula were under evacuation orders for the Fairview fire Friday morning as officials feared the worst from the tropical storm. The wildfire, which grew almost 4,000 acres overnight, expanded by less than 1,000 acres during the day Friday, to 28,307 acres.
At least 13 structures have been destroyed, and 10,000 are threatened. It wasn’t immediately clear how many people were still under evacuation orders after officials Friday evening reduced some evacuation orders to warnings for communities southwest of the fire.
Before noon Friday, nearly 120 people had checked in to the Temecula Community Recreation Center, one of three evacuation shelters set up for the Fairview fire, according to shelter manager John Stone, and more were expected as the flames raged nearby.
Dozens of evacuees sat huddled around tables, many wrapped in blankets against the chilly drizzle outside.
“It was so hot when we left, we didn’t bring any warm clothes,” said Annamay Hughes, 71, who evacuated her Wilson Valley home late Thursday night with her husband and son. The turn in the weather — brought by Tropical Storm Kay — marked another anomaly for Hughes, who said she has never experienced a wildfire evacuation in her 40-plus years as a Californian.
“You don’t think of things like this until it happens to you,” she said.
Chris Young and his wife, who fled their Avery Canyon home Monday, said their biggest worry was the weather bringing strong winds. Through their home security cameras, they were able to confirm their house had been spared from the flames, but they worried heavy gusts could push the fire back in their direction.
“That’s our No. 1 concern — the wind blowing back into the west, bringing embers back into our canyon,” Young said from a Menifee hotel, where the couple had been holed up since evacuating. “We’re still on pins and needles, trying to stay hopeful, but we’re not out of the woods yet.”
Officials said Friday morning that strong eastern winds were creating dangerous long-range spotting that could jump flames up to a mile away, threatening some of the more populated areas west of the fire, from Hemet to Sage. It appeared the rains Friday afternoon had calmed some of the most severe winds, but officials said they could easily return.
The Riverside County Emergency Management Department warned the weather could cause “dangerous flooding and damage countywide,” such as flash flooding and mud or debris flows.
More than 2,100 crew members were working the fire Friday, as well as 16 helicopters and numerous air tankers from across the state, but officials said weather conditions grounded air operations.
“Once the winds become 30 mph or greater, it’s unsafe to fly, and any extinguishing agent they’re going to drop — whether it be water or retardant — is 100% ineffective,” said Justin McGough, the Cal Fire daytime section chief working the Fairview fire.
Govt. Gavin Newsom on Thursday proclaimed a state of emergency for Riverside, as well as for El Dorado and Placer counties, where crews are battling the Mosquito fire, which is 0% contained and rapidly growing.
Evacuation centers for the Fairview fire have been set up at Tahquitz High School in Hemet and the Temecula Community Recreation Center and Temecula Valley High School, both on Rancho Vista Road, as evacuation orders remain in place. The Riverside County Animal Shelter in San Jacinto is available to shelter large and small animals, and the Perris Fairgrounds can take in large animals.
As thousands of homes remain threatened by the Fairview fire, many families are hoping for the best.
Olivia Perez and her two children evacuated their Aguanga home around 11 am Thursday, grabbing what they could: clothes, pillows, blankets, toothpaste, food and documents.
“You see how fast your life can change,” said Perez, 55, who fought back tears as she spoke at the Temecula Community Recreation Center shelter.
Her children — 14-year-old Rio Jimenez and her brother, Uriel Jimenez, 10 — were working on homework at a table at the shelter. Uriel said he was feeling “stressed, scared and worried about everything we left in the house.” He was particularly worried about a book on George Washington Carver that he forgot to grab.
“I need it for my lessons,” he said.
Rio recalled seeing ashes, flames and smoke as they left their home, but she was hopeful the rain would help prevent a worst-case scenario.
“Even though you’re scared and start to panic, you have to stay calm,” she said.
“And pray,” her mother added.
Times staff writer Jonah Valdez contributed to this report.