Hayley Smith and Grace Toohey
Los Angeles Times
As a nearly 30,000-acre wildfire burned near Hemet, California, on Friday, officials were waiting to see whether an unusual weather phenomenon would prove to be friend or foe.
The sky surrounding the Fairview fire had become a steel gray by early afternoon, making it difficult to distinguish the billowing smoke from incoming tropical storm clouds, which officials said were bringing dangerous winds but also some rain that could assist firefighting efforts.
It was not yet clear whether Tropical Storm Kay would further intensify the Fairview fire — with possible lightning strikes, strong winds and the added danger of flooding — or bring just enough moisture to help quell the flames. Light rain Friday afternoon dampened some freshly burned land near Avery Canyon, though officials said more severe storms remain a worry.
“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 already 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 unlikely the afternoon rain would substantially affect the flames in one of California’s largest blazes of the year.
Mehle said less than a tenth of an inch of precipitation has fallen on the fire — not enough to be considered a “wetting rain” or one that would seep into vegetation and greatly alter the blaze. But stronger rainfall is expected as storm bands move up from Mexico, he said.
Tropical Storm Kay was churning along the northern coast of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula Friday afternoon, about 160 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.
The storm was forecast to bring up to 7 inches of rain to Riverside County, as well as strong winds and muggy conditions across Southern California through at least Saturday.
“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’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 are under evacuation orders for the Fairview fire, which grew almost 4,000 acres overnight, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Capt. Richard Cordova said Friday morning. At least 12 homes have been destroyed, and only 5% of the 27,463-acre blaze had been contained as of early Friday, according to fire officials.
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.
Gov. 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.
According to Cal Fire, more than 18,000 structures are threatened by the Fairview fire, and many families are hoping for the best for their homes.
Olivia Perez and her two children evacuated their Aguanga home around 11 a.m. 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.)
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