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 for a swim on Labor Day when they looked up and saw black smoke.

It came from near Baptista’s Hemet house.

The family went home but when they got there they found the area cordoned off by the authorities.

“They evacuated all the houses up there,” Baptista said.

Baptista, 61, and his children were not allowed to return to their trailer on Cactus Valley Road and had to abandon their two cats. With only the clothes on their backs and a few towels, they drove to Tahquitz High School in Hemet, where an evacuation center for displaced people had been set up.

The Fairview fire near Hemet, which killed two people, is now 19,377 acres after exploding since it ignited Monday, forcing officials to continue expanding evacuation orders as the blazes spread moving dangerously close to houses. At least seven buildings were destroyed, according to the Hemet Fire Department.

The blaze stubbornly outpaced firefighters’ efforts to contain its spread as it neared 20,000 acres at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday and had nearly doubled since it was last updated 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 exceed our efforts and was actively burning on all flanks,” Cal Fire Chief Josh Janssen said during a Wednesday morning news briefing. “It was clear the fire was overtaking our air and ground resources.”

Riverside County declared a local emergency Wednesday, a move that could put it in question for state and federal assistance for damage and costs related to the blaze.

Since the evacuation center at Tahquitz High opened, 50 to 60 people have checked in, said David Foust, director of the American Red Cross. About 17 people remained at the school on Wednesday.

“We’re here for as long as we’re needed, however long that may be,” Foust said. “As evacuation zones expand into more urban areas, we can increase that capacity as needed.”

More than 280 firefighters continued to toil on Wednesday in triple-digit heat. Temperatures peaked at 106 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. Thursday is unlikely to bring any respite for firefighters with a forecast high of 103.

Showers are possible in the fire area on Friday, which could help firefighters put out the blazes but could also trigger dangerous mudslides in fire areas.

“It creates a whole new set of complications related to potential flooding,” said Hemet Fire Chief Eddie Sell. “When fires ravage vegetation, the water just runs off, creating almost a mudslide effect, rather than penetrating the vegetation and soil.”

The remains of a burned down building.

A building on Gibble Road was destroyed by the Fairview Fire near Hemet.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Officials are playing it safe with evacuation orders due to the gusty winds, hot temperatures and extreme fire conditions, Hemet Fire Battalion Chief Greg Lloyd said.

“We’re all on the same page,” he said. “People want to be back home as soon as possible and we want people to be back home as soon as possible. The worst case scenario is that we don’t want to evacuate people twice.”

Baptista said he was grateful to the Red Cross and Animal Control staff who rescued his cats.

“It’s a blessing when people help,” he said. “I think some of these people really care.”

After his wife died giving birth to their son in December, 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 children.

“CPS took my kids for a while, but I got them back,” he said. “If I don’t have a trailer, I’ll lose my children. I have no home for her. That would be the worst thing for them.”

Two people who appeared to be trying to flee the fire were found dead in a vehicle at block 42400 of Avery Canyon Road in east Hemet, Sgt. Brandi Schwan said. They have not yet been identified based on the condition of their remains, Swan said.

A female family member of the victims was also found “severely burned” outside the vehicle, taken to a hospital and is expected to survive, Swan said. Her identity has not been released either.

The cause of the fire was still under investigation, but Southern California Edison said there was “circuit activity” around the same time the fire was reported at 3:37 p.m. Monday.

It is unclear if Edison’s equipment played a role in the fire and what circuit activity was like. Edison reported the incident to the California Public Utilities Commission Monday night.

All schools in the Hemet Unified School District remained closed Wednesday, said Shane Reichardt of Riverside County’s Emergency Management Department.

Officials urged residents near the fire to prepare to evacuate.

“We want residents to have a plan and prepare a ‘go-bag’ in case they are asked to evacuate,” Reichardt said.

Times contributor Gregory Yee contributed to this report. Deadly wildfire near Hemet doubles in size, closes in on 20,000 acres

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