Apple Fire grows to 12,000 acres as 7,800 ordered to evacuate; 0% containment
Firefighters continued Saturday to battle the Apple Fire, a wildfire that began a day earlier as two smaller fires that merged and has since destroyed three structures, prompted thousands to evacuate about 2,600 residences and scorched 12,000 acres in Cherry Valley.
About 7,800 people have been ordered to leave their homes as of Saturday, as 375 firefighters with five air tankers, four helicopters and three bulldozers continued to fight to control the wildfire, which had grown to nearly 19 miles, authorities said.
No injuries have been reported.
The Apple Fire began shortly before 5 p.m. Friday as "at least" two fires burning near each other in the 9000 block of Oak Glen Road in the unincorporated community of Cherry Valley, a few miles north of Beaumont, Cal Fire said.
Since its start, the fire's progress has been pretty much unchecked. Despite a full day of aerial attacks, the fire was 0% contained by late Saturday.
Triple-digit temperatures, low humidity, a slight breeze and thick vegetation are feeding the flames, Herrera said, adding that the only fire breaks in the area are roads and natural barriers.
Officials reported one single-family home and two outbuildings near Avenida Miravilla have been destroyed.
The fire was burning in the Banning Bluff area and firefighters are using fire retardant to try to control the flames. Herrera said a warning had been issued a portion of the area that includes the Morongo Indian Reservation.
"It's burning into the forest," he said, referring to the San Bernardino National Forest.
Due to the Apple Fire, forest officials announced later Saturday that they had closed the San Gorgonio Wilderness, a roughly 96,000-acre area north of the fire. Also, the Pacific Crest Trail, a route popular with hikers, was closed between the forest boundary and Onyx Summit.
In addition, the South Coast AQHD issued a smoke advisory for the Coachella Valley for Saturday, cautioning residents to remain indoors, avoid physical activity and to use air conditioning or run their air purifier.
Evacuations during a pandemic
Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for residents in Cherry Valley north of Dutton Street, east of Oak Glen Road and south of County Line Road, according to the Riverside County Emergency Management Department.
Also, residents living north of Gilman Street in the Banning Bluff area and north of Cherry Valley Boulevard, west of Highland Springs Avenue and east of Beaumont Avenue, were also ordered to evacuate, Herrera said.
All of those evacuations remained in effect Saturday and were expanded as day continued.
By 11:30 a.m., residents of the west Potato Canyon area to Raywood Flat in Oak Glen were given an evacuation warning.
And, as of 2:15 p.m., residents in the Banning area living north of Wilson Street, east of Sunset Avenue and west of Hathaway Street were under mandatory evacuation orders, officials said.
By 6:30 p.m., an evacuation warning was issued for residents north of Morongo Road, east of Millard Canyon Road and west of Whitewater Canyon Road. The warning meant mandatory evacuation orders could come with "little or no notice," officials said.
The area under the evacuation warning is north of the Interstate 10 and Highway 111 interchange on the western edge of the Coachella Valley in the unincorporated community of Whitewater.
As of 8 p.m., the unincorporated community of Oak Glen was under a mandatory evacuation order, according to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. The Forest Falls community was under an evacuation warning.
Herrera said an evacuation center has been set up at Beaumont High School, 39139 Cherry Valley Blvd., in Beaumont. The blaze is threatening 2,586 homes affecting as many as 7,800 residents, according to figures released Saturday evening.
Officials said that in addition to the blaze, they are also mindful of protecting evacuees from the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, the evacuation center is being used as more of a check-in point rather than an actual shelter.
On Friday, according to John Medina, shelter supervisor with the American Red Cross, because of the pandemic shelter operations were kept outdoors.
Evacuees were asked to stay in their vehicles as volunteers checked them in, provided them with water and food and then sent them to a hotel room.
Due to the heat, however, and the large portion of older evacuees, these operations were moved indoors to a small gymnasium of Beaumont High School on Saturday.
"This is unusual to be inside," Medina said, as he outlined the check-in process for evacuees.
Before entering the gym, their temperatures are being checked and they are asked health-screening questions. When they are cleared to go inside, Medina said, they are required to wear a mask — they will be provided one if they don't have one — given water and food and instructed to practice social distancing.
The gym is just a temporary shelter, basically a cooling center, Medina added, where evacuees go before being checked into a hotel for the night, courtesy of the Red Cross.
On Friday night, 31 people checked in and seven families were placed into hotel rooms to the west of Beaumont and Banning, in the Moreno Valley and Redlands areas.
Most evacuees who checked in Friday, Medina said, had to check out of the hotel in the morning and check back in at the evacuation center in order to secure a room for an additional night.
A couple who checked in late Friday night and slept in their car were allowed to check-in early to a hotel on Saturday and an elderly individual with special needs was allowed to stay in the hotel without returning to the center, he said.
The center is also providing individually wrapped meals — in some cases, dropping them off at hotel room doors — due to COVID-19.
By 3 p.m. Saturday, nine people had checked into the evacuation center. Medina said he expects the evacuees from the night before to return, as well as others who are newly evacuated.
"Most people will fend for themselves," Medina said, while standing in a nearly empty gymnasium Saturday afternoon. People will stay with friends or family nearby, he said, or secure their own hotel rooms. "On average, about 10% of our evacuees take advantage of our resources."
If there is an influx of people needing to use the resources, he said, the Red Cross can start providing congregate living shelters but, because of the pandemic, no more than 50 people could stay at one shelter. Medina does not expect to be in that situation for this fire.
On Saturday morning, Beverly Clay stood outside the evacuation center and recalled four years earlier when she had to evacuate her home during the Bogart Fire.
She said the current fire has her concerned for her horses as they don't do well with smoke.
"We went to get the horses out last night, but they wont let me up there," said Clay, as her three dogs Coco, Trusty and Khaya ate from a paper soup bowl.
Her son, Bill Boehm of Huntington Beach, was at her house visiting Friday night. He was there to drop off his dog, Khaya, before a family vacation.
"I just came in to see my mom last night – it was amazing timing." Boehm said. "We were able to get out, they gave us quite a bit of notice. We had friends in Banning that took us in. We heard from a friend at 1 a.m. that the neighborhood was still in tact."
Clay said they were able to save pictures, financial documents and some of her art as they evacuated.
Volunteers, later Saturday, informed Clay her horses were safe.
Some area residents, such as Kristi and Bob Innes, both retired firefighters, were asked to evacuate their home but didn't. Their house sits on Sing Road at the top of the Banning bench, an area that used to be ripe with fruit trees.
The Inneses said, because of what they know about fires, they decided to stay behind with their house.
Though there have been fires in the area before, not many have made it into their neighborhood, they said. The last one that did, the Black Ranch Fire in 2000. During that fire, the Inneses were both at work, but not on the fire that surrounded their home that day.
"Nothing burned – everything was fine," Kristi Innes said. "The only thing that burned was a plum tree.
"They don't even have to worry about us — we are fine," she added, about an hour before blazes started to surround the mountains facing Bluff Street in Banning. "They can concentrate on the houses over there," she said, pointing towards her neighbors' homes closer to the mountain edges.
Though neither of the Inneses were worried about their home, they said they prepared Friday night by putting out their garden hoses and putting some flammable items, like the cushions to Kristi's patio set beneath the shade of cedar trees, into the garage.
The cedars are flammable, she said, but they sit a little away from the house. Kristi said she wet down the area beneath them.
"Anything can burn," she said. "It could happen, but it would have to be pretty strong winds.
"Even if it did come straight toward us, I'm still not worried. If I were, I would have left," she added. Their four cats were outside somewhere and, at the time, the couple was watching a neighbor's cat and a goat, named Jack, down the road.
Weather a factor
The fire has also prompted road closures in Banning. The following closures were still in effect Saturday:
- Northbound on Oak Glen road from Orchard Avenue
- Northbound on International Park/Cherry Ave at Bridge Street
- Northbound Ave San Timoteo at Orchard Street
- Northbound Winesap at Dutton Street
- Northbound Bellflower Ave. at Cherry Valley Boulevard
- Northbound Highland Springs at Oak Valley
- Northbound Sunset Ave at West Wilson Street
- Northbound Bluff St. at Mias Canyon Road.
The Apple Fire broke out amid an extended heat wave across the Inland Empire and in the Coachella Valley, where temperatures topped out at 111 degrees Saturday in Palm Springs, according to the National Weather Service.
Saturday's forecast near the Apple Fire includes a high of 101 with 10 to 15 mph winds that could gust as high as 30 mph.
Sunday is expected to be sunny, with a high near 99. It will also be breezy, with a west wind of 15 to 25 mph, with gusts as high as 35 mph, according to the weather service.
"Heat always makes a difference, as does wind and low humidity," said Battalion Chief Tim Adams of Anaheim Fire and Rescue.
Adams said his firefighters have been working for 36 hours or more and were doing perimeter and structure defense until 4:30 a.m. Saturday. After a two hour break, they were back to work by 6:30 a.m.
Four helicopters and two bulldozers also assisted with firefighting efforts.
Some of the roughly dozen assisting agencies included fire departments from Cathedral City, Hemet, Morongo Band of Mission Indians, Murrieta and Palm Springs.
Very Large Air Tanker joins fire fight
Herrera said a "significant flare-up" broke out Saturday before 2 p.m. at the northwest corner of the fire near Pine Bench Road and the Oak Glen Conservation Camp. It has since subsided, he said.
Three additional air tankers were added to support firefighting efforts Saturday, including a Very Large Air Tanker, Herrera said, which is capable of dropping roughly 10,000 gallons of fire retardant at a time.
He said those aircraft have been targeting the northwest corner of the fire.
Despite the increased smoke, Herrera said conditions as of 2 p.m. near the Banning bench look "pretty calm right now."
"I haven't heard or seen any significant flare-ups along that area," he said. "Last night was touch and go. The fire raged through the drainage along the Banning bluff bench and basically came up to the back of some of the homes."
No structures were lost in that area, he said, adding that a damage assessment team will be looking for any other damaged structures where the fire burned.
"It's so hot and it's so intense in some of these areas that haven't been mopped up that it's hard to get in to make an assessment," he said.
The fire has also burned alongside some of the drainage ditches.
"There's drainages that obviously create chimneys," he said. "The fire burns up."
Firefighters are providing fluids to their fellow firefighters at the command center and at drop points along the perimeter, Herrera said.
He said they're also making sure those on the front lines have a sack lunch that they can eat throughout the day.
Shane Newell covers breaking news and the western Coachella Valley cities of Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Desert Hot Springs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 760-778-4649 or on Twitter at @journoshane.