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California wildfires: Homes burn in San Bernardino and strong winds threaten to stoke other blazes

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty

Matthew Valdivia woke Thursday to the smell of smoke, and looked outside to see the glow of a wildfire in the hills near his home in San Bernardino.

After waking up his wife and children and some neighbors, the Valdivia family joined thousands of other Southern Californians who’ve had to flee fires. And like those other evacuees, the Valdivias hoped firefighters could save their house.

It burned to the ground before sunrise.

Valdivia’s home was one of at least six that the Hillside Fire, which started in the hills above San Bernardino after midnight, damaged or destroyed Thursday as winds pushed it down into the city, officials say.

It is one of at least 11 active wildfires burning in the state. Strong winds in Southern California threatened to stoke them further.

The Hillside Fire is far from over — officials urge about 1,300 people in an evacuation zone in the north of the city to stay away. But the flames were out in Valdivia’s neighborhood by late morning, and Valdivia returned to find only charred remains of the house where he’d lived a little more than a year.

“It hurts, but this can get replaced,” he said. “You can’t replace a life. That was my priority — just my kids, and making sure everybody was aware.”

One thing he regrets not grabbing: a laptop with the only copies of some baby photographs of his kids.

“That’s the only thing that hurts my feelings a lot — pictures I didn’t save,” he said.

The fire was first reported just north of San Bernardino around 1:40 a.m. PT (4:40 a.m. ET) and swept into neighborhoods on the city’s edge, consuming about 200 acres by mid-morning, officials said.

Authorities rushed to alert residents who’d been sleeping. No injuries have been reported.

490 homes in San Bernardino evacuated

Firefighters worked Thursday to keep the fire from advancing.

“This fire moves so fast that it’s imperative that people evacuate when we ask them to,” San Bernardino County Fire Deputy Chief Kathleen Opliger said. “It’s not a safe place to be.”

Evacuations have been ordered for about 490 homes in northern San Bernardino, the county fire department said.

The fire was a few miles away from Cal State San Bernardino, which was closed Thursday because the regional utility intentionally cut power as a precaution, hoping to prevent fires in the red-flag conditions. The campus lost power at 3:20 a.m. Thursday.

Julien Cooper, 53, and his father were sleeping in Cooper’s San Bernardino home when he heard his phone ringing. He woke up and smelled smoke.

“Ten seconds later, I hear the doorbell and I already know what it is since we had a fire a week ago,” he told CNN. “It was the neighbor saying that there was a fire in the field.”

Cooper grabbed his dad and his dog, crossed the street to help the neighbor’s elderly mother evacuate and met up with a relative at a McDonald’s. Minutes later he returned home and grabbed some valuables — and his neighbor’s home was on fire.

Cooper took video of the neighbor’s house engulfed in flames. His nephew Henri Moser, who lives out of state, shared it on Twitter. Cooper said he heard firefighters say they’d try to save his house, which had barely survived a wildfire 39 years earlier.

Just to the southeast, firefighters also were battling a blaze that erupted Thursday morning in Riverside County’s Jurupa Valley, prompting evacuations. With county fire officials reporting three homes there destroyed, workers at a pet adoption center prepared evacuations as flames licked nearby brush, an employee told KTLA.

Fires in the Los Angeles area

Thursday’s winds were of no help to Los Angeles-area firefighters, who battled several blazes.

The Getty Fire in Los Angeles, which began Monday, is threatening more than 7,000 homes, the Los Angeles Fire Department said. Most evacuations have been lifted, and the blaze is 39% contained.

And about 40 miles northwest of the city, the Easy Fire broke out in Simi Valley Wednesday. Wind gusts of hurricane force — at least 74 mph — were reported at a weather station about seven miles north of Simi Valley.

The Easy Fire quickly consumed more than 1,600 acres in Ventura County and threatened 6,500 homes, officials said. The fire forced school closures and mandatory evacuations of about 30,000 people in Simi Valley, officials said. Three firefighters have been hurt.

Those evacuations included the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where the former President and his wife, Nancy, are buried. The facility appeared safe by Wednesday evening after firefighters responded.

The state has secured grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help fight several fires, including the Easy Fire and the blazes in San Bernadino and Riverside County, the governor’s office said. The grants allow affected local and state and agencies to apply for a 75% reimbursement of eligible fire suppression costs.

Power companies may be responsible for fires

The Simi Valley wildfire started near a Southern California Edison sub-transmission line, the power company said, adding that it has filed a report with the state Public Utilities Commission.

“SCE is conducting a review into the circumstances surrounding the fire, and will cooperate with all investigations into the origin and cause of the fire,” the company said in a statement.

The company said Tuesday that its equipment likely also contributed to the Woolsey Fire last November. The fire became one of the most destructive in the state, according to the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection, killing three people and destroying more than 1,600 structures.

In Northern California, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) filed three reports with the California Public Utility Commission Wednesday indicating that its equipment may be involved in the start of three fires, according to officials.

Bill Johnson, CEO and President of PG&E Corp., told media the company has contacted the state about reports of videos possibly showing sparking powerlines at the Bethel Island and Oakley fires.

A third report was then filed linking its equipment to a fire in Milpitas, California.

“Troublemen observed wire down. They observed two houses, two cars, and a shed damaged by the fire. An on-site Milpitas Fire Department Investigator informed the troubleman that he was looking at the downed wire as a potential ignition source and collected a portion of the conductor into evidence,” PG&E said in a statement to CNN.

PG&E has been under scrutiny in recent years for the role its equipment played in several devastating fires across the state, including last year’s deadly Camp Fire, which killed 85 people. Over the last weeks, the utility has been enacting preventative shutoffs all over northern and central California.

Mark Quinlan, the company’s incident commander for the shutoffs, said Thursday evening power should be restored to every customer by the end of the day.

There are 156 confirmed instances of damage, such as broken poles or trees tangled in wires, Quinlan said, adding the number will rise as more reports are processed.

“These real hazards that we’re finding could have been potential fire ignitions, and that’s important to understand and really is the foundation of why we have a (power shutoff) program in the first place,” Quinlan said.

California’s biggest fire is far from contained

North of the San Francisco Bay, the week-old Kincade Fire — the state’s largest active wildfire — has destroyed nearly 77,000 acres across Sonoma County and more than 260 structures, including more than 130 single-family homes, officials said.

It was about 60% contained as of Thursday.

The Kincade Fire started October 23, but the cause is still under investigation.

The good news: Forecasters say winds in Northern California will weaken through Thursday, and more residents can go home.

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