Fairview fire could be made worse by Tropical Storm Kay

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As a nearly 30,000-acre fire burned near Hemet on Friday, officials waited to see if an unusual weather pattern would prove friend or foe.

The skies surrounding the Fairview Fire had turned steel gray Friday afternoon, making it difficult to distinguish billowing smoke from incoming tropical storm clouds.

For memory :

3:22 p.m. September 9, 2022An earlier version of this article stated that the Fairview fire had become the largest of the season in California. The McKinney Fire in Siskiyou County, which has burned more than 60,000 acres, is the largest fire this year.

The big question is whether the intense winds and lightning from the storm will bring the fire closer to communities or if the rain will help dampen the flames. Fearing the worst, authorities ordered further evacuations late Thursday ahead of Tropical Storm Kay.

Light rain Friday afternoon eased freshly scorched land near Avery Canyon, though officials said stronger storms remained a concern.

“The concern we have is that we get more moisture from Kay itself, it could turn into thunderstorms, and the thunderstorms would be too much rain too fast,” said Matt Mehle, incident meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Flash flood and high wind warnings were in effect until 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 has been 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 helping in Riverside County. “Over the past six hours we’ve gone from dry, thick brush to humid, super wet conditions.”

But he warned the fire is “still burning very brightly”, making afternoon rain unlikely to significantly affect the flames in one of California’s biggest fires of the year.

Mehle said less than a tenth of an inch of precipitation fell on the fire – not enough to be considered “wetting rain” or that would seep into vegetation and significantly alter the fire. But heavier rainfall is expected as bands of storms move up from Mexico, he said.

Tropical Storm Kay was making landfall on the northern coast of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula Friday afternoon, about 160 miles off San Diego. The system brought intense rain and winds exceeding 100 mph to parts of San Diego, raising concerns about coastal flooding in Los Angeles County and flash flooding further inland.

The storm was to bring until 7 inches of rain in Riverside County, as well as strong winds and wet conditions in 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+ wildfires, I’ve never been to a place where I’ve dealt with a tropical storm as close as we are.

Mehle said the likelihood of a flash flood is low, but would most likely occur within a 12-hour window from Friday evening to Saturday morning. He said officials had been made aware of the possibility because any flash flooding would have a “very high impact”.

Nearly 24,000 people from Hemet to Temecula are under evacuation orders for the Fairview Fire, which grew by nearly 4,000 acres overnight, the Department of Forestry and Protection captain said Friday morning. California Fire Fighter, Richard Cordova. At least 12 homes were destroyed and only 5% of the 27,463-acre blaze had been brought under control by early Friday, firefighters said.

By noon Friday, nearly 120 people had checked into 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 flames raged nearby.

Dozens of evacuees sat around tables, many wrapped in blankets against the cold 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 change in weather – brought on by Tropical Storm Kay – marked another anomaly for Hughes, who said she had never experienced a wildfire evacuation in her more than 40 years as a Californian.

“You don’t think about things like that until it happens to you,” she said.

Chris Young and his wife, who fled their Avery Canyon home on Monday, said their biggest worry was the weather bringing high winds. Using their home security cameras, they were able to confirm that their home had been spared the flames, but they feared strong gusts could push the fire in their direction.

“That’s our number one concern – the wind blowing west, blowing embers back into our canyon,” Young said from a hotel in Menifee, where the couple had been holed up since being evacuated. “We’re still on pins and needles, trying to keep hope alive, but we’re not out of the woods yet.”

Officials said Friday morning that strong easterly winds created dangerous long-range scouts that could throw flames up to a mile away, threatening some of the most populated areas west of the blaze, from Hemet to Sage. Rains on Friday afternoon appeared to have calmed some of the strongest winds, but officials said they could easily return.

The Riverside County Emergency Management Department warned that the weather could cause “countywide flooding and dangerous damage” such as flash flooding and mudslides or debris flows.

More than 2,100 crew members were working on the blaze Friday, along with 16 helicopters and numerous air tankers from across the state, but officials said weather conditions had stalled flight operations.

“Once the winds reach 30 mph or more, it’s dangerous to fly, and any extinguishing agent they drop – be it water or retardant – is 100% ineffective,” said Justin McGough. , Cal Fire’s daytime section chief. the Fairview fire.

Governor Gavin Newsom on Thursday declared a state of emergency for Riverside, as well as El Dorado and Placer counties, where crews are battling the Mosquito Fire, which is 0% contained and growing rapidly .

Evacuation centers for the Fairview Fire have been set up at Tahquitz High School in Hemet and Temecula Community Recreation Center and Temecula Valley High School, both on Rancho Vista Road, as evacuation orders remain in effect. square. The Riverside County Animal Shelter in San Jacinto is available to house large and small animals, and the Perris Fairgrounds can accommodate large animals.

According to Cal Fire, more than 18,000 structures are at risk from the Fairview Fire, and many families are hoping for the best for their homes.

Olivia Perez and her two children evacuated their home in Aguanga around 11 a.m. Thursday, taking what they could: clothes, pillows, blankets, toothpaste, food and documents.

“You see how quickly your life can change,” said Perez, 55, who held back tears as she spoke at the Temecula Community Recreation Center shelter.

Her children – Rio Jimenez, 14, and her brother, Uriel Jimenez, 10 – did their homework at a table in the shelter. Uriel said he felt “stressed, scared and worried about everything we left in the house”. He was particularly worried about a book on George Washington Carver that he had forgotten to take.

“I need it for my lessons,” he said.

Rio remembers seeing ash, flames and smoke as they left their house, but she hoped the rain would help stave off a worst-case scenario.

“Even if you’re scared and you start to panic, you have to stay calm,” she said.

“And pray,” her mother added.

Times writer Jonah Valdez contributed to this report.

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