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Investigators: Smoke-generating device at gender reveal party caused El Dorado fire, now at 7,050 acres

The 7,050 acre-El Dorado wildfire above Yucaipa in San Bernardino County was caused by a pyrotechnic device used to generate smoke during a party, authorities said, as hundreds of firefighters battled the blaze Sunday with more record heat forecast for Southern California.

More than 3,000 residences were affected by the fire as of Saturday evening, Cal Fire spokeswoman Cathey Mattingly said. It consumed 3,010 acres by 10:30 a.m. Sunday and more than doubled in size by sunset. The massive blaze was 5% contained as of 7 p.m. and was being fought by 527 firefighters and other personnel.

The agency’s investigators looking into the cause of the fire did not immediately say what specific consequences the operator or operators of the pyrotechnic device  — during a gender reveal party — may face. They said the fire started at 10:23 a.m. Saturday at El Dorado Ranch Park in Yucaipa.

“Cal Fire reminds the public that with the dry conditions and critical fire weather, it doesn’t take much to start a wildfire. Those responsible for starting fires due to negligence or illegal activity can be held financially and criminally responsible,” the agency said in a statement.

Also Sunday, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a proclamation declaring a state of emergency for San Bernardino County due to the El Dorado fire — as well as for San Diego, Fresno, Madera and Mariposa  counties for other fires. The proclamation notes that because of the magnitude of the fires, local governments will require “the combined forces of a mutual aid region or regions to appropriately respond.” The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and other agencies will be assisting the local governments, the proclamation says.

No injuries were immediately reported tied to the El Dorado fire, though officials  confirmed an outbuilding was destroyed.

The fire crested Yucaipa Ridge, above Oak Glen and the North Bench area of Yucaipa, and was burning on the ridge’s north slope, toward Mountain Home Village and Forest Falls, San Bernardino National Forest spokesman Zach Behrens said Sunday afternoon.

More than 550 firefighters and other personnel were at the scene Sunday, and crews on the ground were aided by aerial tankers and helicopters. Behrens said firefighters were protecting structures in communities and using water and retardant aerial drops to fight the fire.

On steep terrain, one of the main causes for the fire spread was rollouts, where fallen burning trees roll downhill and set vegetation ablaze, with the fire going back upslope, a dangerous situation for firefighters, Behrens said in a statement.

Three-hundred foot flame lengths were reported early Sunday morning. In the afternoon, the fire spread a pall of smoke and falling ash across a wide area of Inland Southern California, in addition to the oppressive heat.

New evacuations were ordered Sunday for the eastern edge of Yucaipa, and the San Bernardino National Forest increased closures to include the San Gorgonio Wilderness, with the exception of the Pacific Crest Trail. Late Sunday afternoon, Yucaipa widened the evacuation area again, to north of Yucaipa Blvd. and east of Bryant Street.

Evacuations and road closures ordered after the fire was reported remained in effect. The fire burned northeast, away from the city.

Communities already ordered to evacuate included part of Oak Glen, from Oak Glen Road to Wildwood Canyon Road,  as well as all of Mountain Home Village and Forest Falls.

The blaze disrupted the traditional Labor Day weekend start of the apple harvest season in the Oak Glen area, where visitors come for orchards, fruit stands, cider mills, restaurants and shops along about 20 miles of Oak Glen Road.

“Holiday travelers, please stay out of the fire area,” Behrens said.  Firefighting resources are in short supply because of fires throughout the state, he said. “We need to keep the firefighters we do have focused on firefighting and not on managing people.”

The El Dorado fire is west of where the Apple fire that started July 31 and burned for most of August and at last report had consumed more than 33,400 acres and destroyed four homes.

 

Hills are dry

In Yucaipa, Jerome Winn evacuated his home and was staying Sunday in his in-laws’ RV.

“It’s really hot, but we’re supposed to get a little relief tomorrow,” said Winn, director of the Oak Glen Christian Conference Center. The RV, he added, “is not as comfortable as being in our own home.”

He had been checking on the conference center, and so far it was safe, he said. In the morning he saw firefighters laying containment lines with fire retardant by Parrish Pioneer Ranch on the northwest side of town.

Before this new incident, Winn said, he had still been seeing spot fires from July’s Apple fire from the southwest side of town.

“Those always make you nervous, too, because you have a spot fire, and if you get winds, it could spread,” he said.

He said the area hasn’t received any rain, which it usually does in late summer, so the hills are extra dry.

He noted this weekend was supposed to be the kick-off of apple season in the town.

“It’s a bummer for the community because the apple community really depends on the tourists,” Winn said.  “This is really going to hurt them.”

The National Weather Service predicted a high Sunday near 112 for the Yucaipa area, with an east wind of 5 to 10 mph becoming north in the afternoon.

The agency warned that some areas of Southern California could be hotter than Saturday, when several high temperature records were broken. A red flag warning for fire danger and an excessive heart warning were in effect.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a smoke advisory for the area through Sunday.

Along with the heat, firefighters faced a day of low humidity, with extremely dry brush in the fire area.

‘Can’t catch a break’

Oak Glen resident Doug Chudy was working on building fire lines Sunday morning.

Chudy is regional director of mountains preserves with the Wildlands Conservancy, which runs both a preserve in Oak Glen and a reserve on the other side of the ridge near Forest Falls, among others.

“We’re all kind of up on scene trying to make sure we don’t burn down,” he said. “We’ve been non-stop since it started.”

It’s been a long year for the Wildlands Conservancy’s Oak Glen Preserve which was hit by a snowstorm last Thanksgiving that downed many large trees.

“We just can’t catch a break this year,” Chudy said.

He is worried about the devastation from multiple fires.

“There’s not going to be any habitat left for the wildlife,” he said. “I mean there’s just nothing left up here.”

He is also concerned about future problems caused by the fires for both Oak Glen and Forest Falls.

“The big issue is going to be flooding,” he said. “It’s going to be a problem for both communities.”

An area of eastern Yucaipa was ordered evacuated Sunday, in the area of the intersection of Bryant and Carter Streets, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said.

There was also a partial evacuation order for the North Bench Yucaipa area, extending east of Jefferson Street, north of Oak Glen Road, south of Yucaipa Ridge and west of Oak Glen, the San Bernardino National Forest said.

The American Red Cross set up an evacuation center at the Yucaipa Community Center, 34900 Oak Glen Road.

Closures

Highway 38 is closed for 12 miles, starting at Bryant Street in Yucaipa, to the community of Angelus Oaks. Oak Glen Road is closed between Pine Bench Road and Cherry Croft Drive.

Several area of the San Bernardino National Forest were closed because of the fire, including the San Gorgonio Wilderness, with the exception of the Pacific Crest Trail and trailheads at  Vivian Creek, Momyer, and  San Bernardino Peak.

The forest also closed the Santa Ana River Trail between Forest Road 1S14, near the forest boundary and Middle Control Road and the yellow-post camping sites in the Thomas Hunting Grounds.

Other closed trails include Big Falls, Oak Glen Divide, Wilson Creek ; picnic areas at Falls and Thurman Flats, and general areas including Yucaipa Ridge, the Mill Creek drainage and off-trail areas of the San Gorgonio Wilderness south of the San Bernardino Peak Divide Trail.

Also closed are Forest Roads 1N12, 1S12, 1S13 and 1S03.

Fire ends outing

Moreno Valley residents Jeanne and Edwin Sims and their two young children were at the nearby Los Rios Rancho apple farm, which was forced to close later Saturday afternoon.

As the family drove up the mountain toward the farm, they pointed out the window for their 3-year-old son toward burnt trees and brush, blackened by the Apple fire, which had burned more than 33,000 acres in July and August.

When the Sims family arrived at Los Rios Rancho about 9:45 a.m., the place smelled of burning apple wood as farm employees barbecued meat for sale. In the distance the Sims saw a thin column of smoke rising into the sky. Soon after, firetrucks, sirens blaring, began racing past the farm.

“We gotta put out that fire,” exclaimed the 3-year-old Edwin Sims, Jr., according to Jeanne Sims.

Over the next few hours, the skinny column grew into a large, dark mushroom-like cloud.

The large cloud loomed over the family as they picked apples and berries and hopped onto a tractor-trailer for a hayride.

At some points, Jeanne Sims said the smoke blocked the sun, giving temporary shade from the scorching heat. By the time the Sims family left about 11:45 a.m., the smell of apple wood barbecue gave way to the scent of the blaze that consumed hundreds of acres of nearby wildland.

Staff writers Eric Licas and Jonah Valdez contributed to this story



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